Twitter’s 280: Should we be Mourning the Loss of Brevity?

Richard Wallace

When Twitter first squawked onto the scene, people’s instant reaction was mockery. The running gag was that people would be limited to apprising each other of what they ate for breakfast — a screeching dawn chorus of inanity. Ten years on, Twitter has defined a new form of language, attracted commentfrom our greatest living artists, and helped topple and install entire governments. All in a tidy 140.

But as Twitter rolls out its new 280 limit, it’s becoming clearer why 140 characters was key to Twitter’s success. Because, as we have always known, freedom is paralysing, and brevity is the soul of wit. Orson Welles knew this, when he said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Blaise Pascal knew it when he wrote, “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” David Ogilvy knew it when he said, “give me the freedom of a tightly written creative brief.”

It’s an essential human truth that writing, as Stephen King articulated, is “refined thinking.” Our minds respond much better to the challenges which force us to refine than to the oppressive, expectant possibility of a white, blank page. That’s what helped make Twitter such a hotbed of creativity. The 280 character limit won’t exactly strangle that part of Twitter’s core offering, but it will dilute it. The addictive readability of the feed and the combination of pithy opinions, jokes and news, delivered at a propulsive rhythm, will suffer.

It seems like a prime example of innovation done badly: innovation just for the sake of change; innovation that isn’t really innovative so much as just…fundamentally different, a sideways move (or a backwards one, depending on how you look at it.) It was clear that Twitter needed to do something; as Wired noted, “stalled user growth, a pervasive harassment problem, and a beleaguered stock price” meant 2017 was a make-or-break year for the platform. Twitter’s business-as-usual approach was evidently not working. But whether this important core feature was the right thing to change remains to be seen. (It does also look as if they might be laying the groundwork for a crackdown on extremists using the platform.)

This shake-up, ultimately, might not be a bad thing. After all, nobody predicted what Twitter users would achieve with 140. The things that have become beloved — the memes, the jokes, the pithiness, the cliques, the little ecosystems that make up the landscape of this enigmatic platform — were not baked in. How could they be? They arose organically, due to a mixture of ingeniousness and natural social behaviour taking its course. It was impossible to predict where we’d end up.

We must have faith that, even if Twitter’s decision was a clumsy one, and even if it’s the users, not the platform, who will be responsible for any good that comes of the changes, one thing is certain: change is not always bad. Like limitation itself, it has the power to inspire our most imaginative qualities. Brands, platforms, and users alike should all exist in an atmosphere that is open and willing to accept the necessity of change. It is better for platforms like Twitter to accept the need to learn from its core offering and ultimately grow beyond it, than be stubbornly tethered to the same service year in year out, like some kind of Promethean torture. The company’s recent troubles are testament to how staying still can have an adverse effect.

Of course, changes need to be balanced against the needs and expectations of users. But what makes Twitter distinctive, and what the company themselves probably don’t even realise, is that even if the users aren’t immediately on board with these changes, they’ll eventually turn them to their advantage. That’s what Twitter is about — it’s a user’s medium. Limitations, setbacks and changes spur them on. By taking a risk, Twitter might well have secured themselves a brighter future by giving the platform a shot in the arm.

Innovation, at its core, does not mean changing things for the sake of it. But it does mean being open to the following mantra: “Hey, this might be a good thing after all.”