in commentary, tech

Every time twitter changes something, it faces backlash. That’s not new, that’s common to all consumer tech companies. There’s a set of users around the world used to things the way they are and some who are looking forward to the change. Whenever Facebook makes a change, they get floods of comments attacking them. Perhaps that’s why Facebook has gone shadowy about all the changes they make to their algorithm. They’ll talk to the public about it, but not really explain anything.

When twitter changed the look of their app and service a few weeks ago, many liked the change and I got upset about it. It’s not that I use the official app or site a lot – I don’t care for it. But it seemed like such a useless change when there are so many other things to deal with.

The same happened yesterday, when twitter announced that they’re increasing the tweet chars limit to 280 for some users, as a test. I’m not part of the small group, but I’m one who’s been saying for a long time that this should happen.

Others, as John Saddington, over here on his blog, believe this betrays the fact that twitter is ending up like the next Yahoo!, having lost its soul a long time ago in the many quagmires it failed to defuse in its long march to infamy.

While I agree that the service is, in general, in shambles and begging for someone to whip some sense into it, this change is not anything which will destroy twitter. If anything, it’ll give users such as me some breathing space.

Yes, I can be pithy and reword my tweets to be exactly 140 chars or less. But who wants to? “Brevity is the soul of wit”, said the man who wrote 884,647 words in his career. Well, I don’t want to be witty all the time. I want to get my point across, and if it takes 145 characters to do so, so be it.

Yesterday, while discussing this change, twitter made a feeble attempt at giving a technical reason for this change. They explained on their blog that the reasoning is that some languages, unlike Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, are more visual in nature and can explain a lot more in one character than others, such as English, Spanish, and French. Therefore, they are making this change available for the latter languages. They also explained that only about 9% of all tweets reach the 140 characters limit.

That last bit surprised me. I thought about it a bit and realized that this number, 9%, is probably flawed for various reasons –

  1. Twitter has a lot of spam. Like, a lot. So, when someone talks about 9% of all English language tweets, they’re probably counting a lot of bots, crap, spammers, and the general noise you see on twitter. Remove all of those and the number might actually jump into double digits.
  2. Most people who want to express themselves better have gotten used to the idea of tweetstorming. They know that twitter’s not going to fix this issue, so they use tools, or just hit reply manually to post things in a better way. If twitter counts tweetstorms as one tweet, I’m sure, again, that they’ll tip over to north of 10% easily.
  3. Everyone else who ever faced the predicament of having a red negative number blocking their tweet just went ahead and reworded the tweet to fix things. Had they any method to tweetstorm from the official app, they would have done so, and, again, twitter’s numbers would be more truthful.

Given these factors, there’s not less reason to implement 280 chars, but more.

But, here’s a prediction, if I could make one –

When twitter revisits these numbers in a year or two, they’ll see that the number hasn’t really shifted a lot. If they see 9% now, they’ll, maybe see 10-11% a year from now. The reason is simple – when we’re given an arbitrary limit, our thoughts go towards meeting that limit instead of finding ways around it to fully express ourselves. Now that twitter has gotten everyone used to 140 chars, when the noise settles, those who need a few extra chars to express themselves will take those and use the space. Others will not. Simple.

This new limit is nothing to fret about. It’s not going to destroy twitter. That’s already to job of twitter’s bad advertising, political hand-wringing, and spam. All this is going to do is give some breathing space to people like me, who need a few extra chars once in a while.

Side note – I noticed that tweetbot took the 280 char limit and presented it beautifully since yesterday. I haven’t had to update my app for it. No good twitter app has a hard limit of 140 chars built into the stream display. That just shows that there’s no real reason for twitter to go back to 140 chars. The endless stream of tweets that people are used to will work exactly the same way as before. Don’t worry about it. Worry about everything else that’s still wrong with twitter.

p.s. – My thoughts are partly explained by Colin Walker here, funnily enough, in fewer words.

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