According to Jack Dorsey, the cofounder and CEO of Twitter, the 140-character limit was an arbitrary choice based on the 160-character limit of SMS. The company committed to that length this past decade, but recently wondered what would happen if they gave Twitter users even more room to express ourselves. So here we have something we didn’t ask for: a 280-word limit.
That makes sense I guess. I remember my first cellphone, and how frustrating it was to fight with my first boyfriend via text when I had so much to say, and so little space to say it in. I also remember signing up for Twitter on my original account in 2008, being confused by the 140-character thing, and abandoning it for months at a time. I couldn’t quite figure out how to use it, who I wanted to follow, or what I wanted to say.
I came back to it as a frequent user in 2010 because I was a baby writer based in Muncie, Indiana, and somebody told me that Twitter was where all the writers and thinkers I wanted to talk to were concentrated. I jumped back onto the platform, followed all the writers whose work I was reading, followed the people they retweeted, and eventually started to share my own thoughts. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, through the platform, and I continued to talk with people who I never would have met in real life. People started following me more and more, with that growth came trolls, and I became close with the block button.
Which brings me back to Twitter’s announcement that some users would now have access to 280 characters in a single tweet which is double the original limitation. The announcement was met with a lot of criticism to say the least: Why focus on adding more characters when the real problem is harassment? Obviously this was an effort to make the platform more user-friendly, it’s also clearly a tactic to entice new users. Twitter has struggled to to keep up with the success of Facebook. I don’t necessarily see how increasing the character limit accomplishes this goal, but I also don’t think it’s a bad feature. The announcement is just incredibly bad timing.
There may be something I’m missing in terms of harassment, but I’ve watched trolls badger a person all day through multiple tweets that add up to a lot more than 280 characters. Not to steal from Jeff Goldblum here, but you know, hate finds a way. And I believe, therein lies the real trouble with this whole 280 characters move. Until Twitter adequately addresses concerns about harassment on their platform, every change to make the user experience friendlier will end up being used to spread and fuel hate and hostility.
To some frequent users (like me), any changes made to something we use every day will feel like a pain in the ass. We like being good at stuff. We like knowing where all the buttons are, what our limits are, and everybody who uses Twitter regularly has at some point marvelled at their own ability to say exactly what they wanted to say in exactly 140 characters. It’s like a superpower. How could Twitter take that away from us?
Easily! Because here’s the thing: Twitter is a business that will do most anything to attract new users, but little to help current users, and that includes making us feel safe. At this point, they’re not even doing a great job of making current users feel heard.
Heavy Twitter users stay because even though the harassment sucks, they still want to be part of their Twitter communities. It’s still a great place to get news, make connections, and in some cases, create ideas and movements that move far beyond your keyboard and onto the screens and lives of people you’ll never meet around the world. It still feels like a superpower.
For many users, the response to harassment on the site still doesn’t feel responsive enough, and constantly dealing with hate is quickly outweighing the benefits of logging in. Not to mention the fact that while Twitter remains a fantastic place to get news, it is also often part of the news.
The President of The United States frequently uses the platform to disseminate targeted attacks, and even announce national policy. Recently, North Korea’s Prime Minister said he considered one of the president’s tweets a “declaration of war.” To be fair, North Korea seems to consider a lot of things declarations of war. In any event, these are the types of events that frighten users of Twitter, and makes them wonder if using the platform as they do now is the most responsible thing to do in the middle of what some are calling the rousing of a culture war.
I still don’t see people leaving Twitter in droves, but I’ve learned never to say never. Writers Glenn Thrush and Lindy West have abandoned the platform in the last year, and they both had large followings. The announcement of a 280-character limit, at this time of all times, hints at a cluelessness the people who work at Twitter seem to have about the people who use Twitter. It’s not really about the character limit. People know that Twitter will always be making changes, and that they won’t like them all, but they can get used to them. They’ve done it every other time. This is about an increased character limit when people are asking — and in some cases begging — for a respite from trolls, Nazis, and the increasingly unstable rambling from the supposed leader of the free world. Until Twitter addresses those issues in a way that makes sense, the rumblings about abandoning the platform won’t stop. And each time they announce a new feature, the conversation will come right back to this: Why should we stay?