Ireland: How doubling tweet length matters to public debate

October 7, 2017

I remember being chided as a student for my verbose writing. Frustrated by paragraphs that ran too long and lines of often unnecessary complexities, teachers plead for brevity. No matter the subject or level, less was always more. Now living in the age of the “Tweeter-in-Chief,” perhaps we took these lessons too far.

Twitter is rocking the boat this month, testing a significant alteration to its platform. The social media giant—known for its stylistic concision—is considering an unceremonious doubling of its 140-character limit for posts.

In announcing the pilot, Twitter boss Jack Dorsey took advantage of the new feature, arguing the arbitrary nature of the hallmark 140-character limit. For some this potential shift may seem dubious; however, this move underscores a broader evolution.

For all the talk of social media’s capacity to enrich society and its ability to bridge divides in our communities, tech titans in Silicon Valley are increasingly worried their tools may have borne lasting, negative effects.

More than connecting people in new, constructive ways, these emerging forms of media have given an anonymous forum for the darkest elements of society and fueled their work by encouraging truncated and intellectually reduced communication.

As a digital consultant, I find Twitter’s character count uniquely frustrating. Borrowing from McLuhan, every medium has its limits which ultimately inform its message. Yet, Twitter stands alone because of its severely terse nature.

In the case of public discourse, the limitations of this medium aids inferior messages. In the simplest form, when wrongheaded, conclusory statements are made, a tempered rebuttal requires greater length. While there are creative ways already employed to curb this reality, it still festers.

Beyond the latest refuse on the Kremlin, Lena Dunham controversy, or other celebrity background noise, platforms like Twitter have become a sort of double edged sword. While brevity is a welcome touch for encouraging access to discourse, it also fixes the discussion in favor of intellectually weak perspectives. Dorsey and other developers rightly recognize the latter blade has become too sharp and are exploring ways to help mitigate this.

Twitter’s 140-character limit was initially implemented to complement existing SMS technology. Here the 160-character limit of text messages—one means of posting to the site—helped dictate their length, where the remaining 20 characters provided for user names.

The beginnings of this format are innocuous, but the limitations of content nonetheless provide an advantage to those who reside in an intellectual void. Here ignorance can feed ignorance, but enlightenment is curbed by the very nature of the medium.

The internet today is a thriving wild, wild west where opportunity is unbounded. Twitter’s focus on brevity attributed to its considerable success and highlights the critical importance of a free and open internet. Yet, this greater environment comes with risks we are all well served to recognize.

Simply said, Twitter’s potential changes are significant and may prove to be beneficial. The format of the platform and its limitations have a significant influence on our discourse and its alterations will surely inform future messages.

Cautiously optimistic, I hope this expansion will lead to a more robust debate on issues of the day and a more effective rebuttal of those ideas already cast to the ash heap of history.

An extra 140 characters cannot alone heal the wounds that divide us, but tailoring social media to thoughtful dialogue may bring us closer.•

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Ireland is a Robel Scholar at Indiana University’s Michael S. Maurer School of Law and a digital media consultant. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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