Fury as Twitter doubles length of tweets
Is brevity really the soul of wit? This week Twitter gave all its users 280 characters to play with, instead of 140. But many believe the site has lost its “unique selling point”.
“A short burst of inconsequential information.”
This definition inspired Jack Dorsey to choose the name “Twitter” for his new microblogging site. He settled on a limit of 140 characters - “an arbitrary choice based on the 160 character SMS limit”.
But now Twitter has implemented its most important change so far. In September, it granted 5% of users 280 characters. This week the new limit was extended to all tweeters around the world.
The change reflected a general backlash against concision. For example, the bosses of Amazon and Linkedin have banned Powerpoint from meetings; and a scientist working on the large hadron collider said its bullet point format was “acting as a straitjacket to discussion”.
But Twitter’s change has provoked a furious backlash. J.K. Rowling tweeted that: “The whole point, for me, was how inventive people could be within that concise framework.” Former congressman John Dingell was scathing: “99% of you people don’t even deserve 140 characters.”
Longer forms of expression have declined in the last decade. The Royal Mail delivered 30% fewer letters and parcels in the UK in 2012 than 2005.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius says: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The Biblical sentence “Jesus wept” and Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg address have been among the most quoted words in history. And Ernest Hemingway famously wrote an entire novel in six words: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
This stands in contrast to the work of French novelist Marcel Proust, whose work includes a 958-word sentence, and Nicholson Baker, whose entire novel The Mezzanine was based on a man’s thoughts during a one-hour lunch break.
Writer Pico Iyer defends those who write at length. “The long sentence… allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time,” he says. In an ever-more complicated world, he argues, we need to understand issues in increasing depth and fully appreciate their nuances.
Twitter has been blamed for enflaming political tensions worldwide, and many believe its original character limit discouraged reasoned discussion in favour of simple slogans and put-downs. So is the site’s decision the right one?
To tweet or not to tweet
“Good things, when short, are twice as good” — as the great Spanish sage Baltasar Gracián said. And many agree.
Rubbish says Chris Knight, writing in Canada’s National Post. “A long sentence, carefully crafted, sinuously plotted, making perfect (and not mere perfunctory) use of language’s full, throatsome range of punctuation as well as its great rhombicuboctahedron of letters, is at once an edifice of towering and fragile beauty, and a song of deep and convoluted meaning.”
- Is Twitter right to double the length of tweets?
- Which of the final two paragraphs of this article do you think is better written?
- Sum up the above article, using no more than 280 characters. Then discuss: How easy did you find that? Is it better than the full article?
- Give your opinion on Twitter’s change in 35 characters. Then expand it to 70 characters. Then 140, 280 and finally 560 characters.
Some People Say...
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- After 11 years, Twitter has extended its character limit on tweets from 140 to 280. The change was first announced in September, when only a few accounts were granted the extra characters. But Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, has deemed the experiment a success and has rolled the change out to everyone else. We know that many Twitter users are unhappy, and would have preferred Twitter to introduce a button to edit tweets that have already been sent.
- What do we not know?
- Whether Twitter’s decision will reverse the trend of reducing everything to smaller and smaller chunks. Could this signal the return of the 1,000-page novel or the six-hour play? In the past there have also been rumours that Twitter wants to abandon limits entirely.
- A garment which restrains someone’s arms, usually used on people considered dangerous. In the meetings, presenters and audiences were only able to focus on prepared bullet points.
- Gettysburg address
- At the height of the American civil war in 1863, President Lincoln was invited to deliver remarks at the opening of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. The area was the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles. His speech lasted less than three minutes; it was so short that the official photographer did not have time to take a picture.
- Urban legend suggests Hemingway came up with the story on his own — but some have suggested he stole the idea from classified newspaper adverts.
- A 958-word sentence
- The sentence is in a controversial passage linking sexuality and Judaism. This word count is for an English translation. The sentence appears in Sodom et Gomorrhe (Vol. 4 of Remembrance of Things Past — À la Recherche du temps perdu). The word count comes out at a mere 847 in the French text.