Sam Rosenberg: 280 characters too many?

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 7:10pm

Earlier this month, Twitter officially expanded its original 140 character limit to 280 characters. The decision to tweak the platform’s most notable attribute was met immediately with outrage from many of its avid users.

Most complained that the added characters contradicted the charming brevity and pithiness that made Twitter so unique in the first place. Some believed it’s a disaster waiting to happen, and that doubling the character limit was the fault of millennials. But the biggest problem looming over this new feature is how Twitter has neglected to address some of its larger issues, including the inability to edit tweets, the ability to promote political propaganda and the company’s mishandling of daily online harassment.   

Some have embraced the new feature by tweeting playful 280-character statuses, and others satirized its ridiculousness and ridiculed its excessiveness.

While all of these matters are relevant and valid, I would argue there are some really good things that can transpire from having more words to type in a tweet. For instance, the increase in character limit has the potential to foster more effective and nuanced dialogue among Twitter users.

To give an example, I crafted a tweet a few nights praising Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and comparing it more favorably to another female-centric, coming-of-age story, Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen.” It provoked a litter of responses, including one from my friend Ben, who defended “The Edge of Seventeen” and said it was better than “Lady Bird.” An argument inevitably ensued between him and my other friends who vehemently defended “Lady Bird.”

But by capitalizing on the 280 character limit, Ben was able to articulate why he felt “Lady Bird” wasn’t as compelling to him as “The Edge of Seventeen,” carefully and concretely listing elements of the story that didn’t meet his expectations. He wrote that he still liked “Lady Bird” a lot, but the addition of more characters allowed him to better convey his feelings about why he didn’t love it as much as everyone else. For situations like this, the 280 character limit can be extremely helpful when it comes to in-depth discussions on divisive, hot button topics and current pop cultural phenomenons.

In a statement regarding the 280 characters, Twitter product manager Aliza Rosen explained that “more space makes it easier for people to fit thoughts in a Tweet, so they could say what they want to say, and send Tweets faster than before.” Being able to incorporate more characters in tweets are especially handy for wordy people (including myself), who need more than 140 characters to express themselves online. It gives greater space for users to emphasize momentous political achievements, tell elaborate jokes and raise greater awareness about relevant issues like the recent slew of sexual allegations against powerful men in Hollywood. Though concision is intrinsic to the Twitter model, it also dilutes discourse and makes it more difficult to talk about complicated, important topics. This added feature has the power to invert that.

Changing the format of an online platform is inevitable and it won’t always be received positively when it first occurs. After Facebook changed its basic “Wall” format to a “Timeline” format in 2011, the platform’s switch to a more streamlined structure provoked mixed reactions. The social network encountered even more negative attention when it introduced the “Reaction Buttons” last year. But now, it seems that both changes are considered largely accepted by Facebook users.

Instagram also experienced similar backlash in 2016 when the company redesigned its logo and interface. The detraction, of course, gradually subsided over time. The same goes for Snapchat when the mobile outlet added its “Snap Map” feature earlier this year, which, predictably, received mixed reviews. Snap Map allows Snapchatters to track where their friends are located in real time. Though this raised concerns of bullying and cyberstalking, Snapchat users are able to anonymize themselves, giving them both agency and self-protection from potential issues.

Social networks, including Twitter, are supposed to change in order to grow and survive, and we as a culture are supposed to adapt that change. People are still entitled to disagree with and unsubscribe from social networks that don’t adhere to their level of online comfort, but it’s unlikely that Twitter will go back to its original roots. The more we can embrace the idea of a 280 character platform, the easier it will be to adapt to our online environment.