14 ways of looking at 280 characters

I’m not sure what effect it will have, and I doubt Twitter is sure either. But for the time being, here are 14 thoughts, each in fewer than 280 characters.

1. Lots of writers are saying this is terrible for writing. Writing is about editing – insert that quote about ‘Sorry for writing such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. It’s a fair point, but then it’s not like 280 characters is War and Peace.

2. Limits are important (this is the creative guru response, related to point 1). By this argument, Twitter has unleashed creativity with its 140-character limit (true). But the obvious answer is that 280 is still a limit, just a different one. Both are arbitrary.

3. There was no limit anyway, is another way of looking at it. People now commonly use Twitter to post essays, by replying to their own tweets so that it forms a continuous timeline known as a thread. Or posting work-arounds, like images of text. ‘Desire paths’ in digital form.

4. The ‘thread’ is an example of how Twitter’s main features came by accident, not top-down design. It was a user (Chris Messina) who began using hashtags as we now know them. 140 characters was a response to the text-message limit at the time (which soon became irrelevant).

5. But even if it was by accident, is there something intrinsically magical about 140 characters? 140 is a harmonic divisor number – I don’t know what this is, but it sounds important. Maybe it has magic qualities. Sonnets are 14 lines.

6. Also, there is research to suggest sentences of <11 words are easy to read, and >21 words are hard to read. The user-centric writers at gov.uk suggest a maximum sentence length of 25 words, which generally (coincidentally) works out pretty close to 140 characters.

8. One thing it would definitely find is that people scan more than they read, especially when looking at Twitter. And it’s easier to scan through lots of 140-character tweets. 280-character tweets demand a greater investment of attention.

9. This seems like the key design problem with 280 characters. It would have been possible to keep the 140-character top-line limit and pace, but introduce a mechanism for attaching longer, searchable text notes. This article talks more about that.

10. 280 characters presents a different writing challenge, because it puts the onus on you to grab readers, in a way that 140 characters didn’t. Maybe we’ll see tweets with headlines and body copy.

12. Many lament that it’s a solution to a non-existent problem. What about an edit button (obvious scope for abuse) or fighting hate speech (more important, but doing one doesn’t preclude doing the other). Or maybe Twitter is the problem – maybe someone else needs to own it.

13. The time-honoured question: What does this mean for brands? It means they will have more space to put words in, and they will use it because it’s there, and this will be 95% a bad thing. Online wackaging. Wwwackaging.

14. But maybe we will see a return to brand lines that make some kind of sense, now that the main practical justification for them has been removed. Less #BeLegacy, more #RefreshesThePartsOtherBeersCannotReach. Hooray.

Nick Asbury is a writer for branding and design and one half of creative partnership, Asbury & Asbury. See asburyandasbury.com

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