Full of char­ac­ters

Twit­ter is of­fi­cially dou­bling the char­ac­ter limit to 280

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend - BY HAY­LEY TSUKAYAMA

T’S of­fi­cial. We’re go­ing to 280. Now ev­ery Twit­ter user - from first-day users to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump - will have twice the room to share their thoughts.

Twit­ter on Tues­day con­firmed that it is dou­bling its iconic char­ac­ter count for good, af­ter a month or so of tests try­ing out longer tweets.

While many Twit­ter users re­acted with hor­ror to the tests, Twit­ter said in a blog post that the higher limit made peo­ple more likely to tweet, left fewer than 1 per­cent of users hun­gry for more room and in­creased “en­gage­ment” - its um­brella term for likes, replies and retweets.

(For those hav­ing trou­ble vi­su­al­is­ing the dif­fer­ence, the sec­ond para­graph of this ar­ti­cle has 140 char­ac­ters; the third has 280.)

Twit­ter orig­i­nally hit on the 140-char­ac­ter limit as a nod to the char­ac­ter lim­its placed on early text mes­sages, when it was founded in 2007. SMS mes­sages had a 160-char­ac­ter limit, and Twit­ter wanted users to be able to post mes­sages via phone, with enough room for a user­name. It be­came a hall­mark of the ser­vice - an en­cour­age­ment to craft short, sweet mes­sages and con­trib­ute to the freeflow of con­ver­sa­tion that be­came Twit­ter’s main iden­ti­fy­ing fea­ture.

Fol­low­ing an age of blog­ging, when lengthy rants or emo con­tem­pla­tion lit up the likes of Live­jour­nal or Xanga, the move to bite­sized thoughts felt dif­fer­ent. But as Twit­ter ex­panded its am­bi­tions to be­come more of an on­line town square, it be­came an im­por­tant place to dis­cuss com­plex ideas.

The com­pany said in Septem­ber that it was test­ing a new up­per limit be­cause lan­guages such as English couldn’t pack as much in­for­ma­tion into 140-char­ac­ters as other lan­guages, such as Chi­nese, Japanese or Korean, which use can use char­ac­ters that de­note whole words. (These lan­guages will re­tain the 140-char­ac­ter limit, Twit­ter said.)

Many peo­ple had pointed out that 280 char­ac­ters, de­spite what chief ex­ec­u­tive Jack Dorsey said in his own longer tweet an­nounc­ing the change, just doesn’t lend it­self to the same fo­cus. It’s some­how too long to be brief, and still too brief to be mean­ing­ful. A heav­ily retweeted im­age fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment showed Dorsey’s long tweet an­nounc­ing the change edited down to fit in 139 char­ac­ters.

Be­fore the tests - which were lim­ited to a few users, but easy to par­tic­i­pate in thanks to third-party tools - roughly 9 per­cent of tweets ran right up against the 140-char­ac­ter limit. Dur­ing the 280-char­ac­ter tests, that num­ber fell sig­nif­i­cantly, ac­cord­ing to a graph of English-only tweets pro­vided by Twit­ter.

It shouldn’t be a sur­prise that even a com­pany built on lan­guage lim­i­ta­tions has re­laxed them, said Deb­o­rah Tan­nen, pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “The ten­dency to start small and ex­pand has been a re­lent­less pat­tern with all of these apps and plat­forms,” she said, cit­ing ex­pand­ing am­bi­tions at Face­book and oth­ers. Snapchat, she noted, was much faster to move away from its defin­ing fea­ture - ephemeral mes­sag­ing.

The tests also didn’t seem to bear out the dystopian pre­dic­tions that Twit­ter would be flooded with longer mes­sages and lose the econ­omy of lan­guage that’s be­come its hall­mark. In most cases, it doesn’t seem like most peo­ple are ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing the length of their tweets; we have ap­par­ently been trained well. Only five per­cent of users went above 140 char­ac­ters dur­ing the test, and only 2 per­cent ever went north of 190 char­ac­ters.

Users had also worried that longer tweets would ex­ac­er­bate Twit­ter’s on­go­ing prob­lem with ha­rass­ment - more char­ac­ters might mean more scope for abuse. On that front, we don’t have answers yet. Twit­ter did not pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on whether it had seen an in­crease in ha­rass­ment on its site, due to the higher char­ac­ter limit.

But, Twit­ter said, while ob­nox­iously long mes­sages weren’t flood­ing users’ time­lines, the more ver­bose tweets did let peo­ple fire off mes­sages faster and, the com­pany be­lieves, with less ag­o­nis­ing over each mes­sage. The tests showed that the feared neg­a­tives for Twit­ter didn’t come true, and the in­creased lim­its lets con­ver­sa­tion flow faster -- which means Twit­ter gets more use and can make more money.

So, it seems 280 char­ac­ters is good for busi­ness. And, in the end, that’s re­ally what mat­ters to Twit­ter.

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