Marked for Deprecation: Push More, Read Less, and the New Twitter

[This post ontains embedded Tweets. Some browsers might display them as blank spaces].

This post is composed of 996 words.


Even if you are not on Twitter you will know by now that the character limit for Tweets has gone up from 140 characters to 280 characters. You can read a post about it from Twitter Product Manager Aliza Rosen here.

The post is enlightening. I found this paragraph both funny and sad:

Historically, 9% of Tweets in English hit the character limit. This reflects the challenge of fitting a thought into a Tweet, often resulting in lots of time spent editing and even at times abandoning Tweets before sending. With the expanded character count, this problem was massively reduced – that number dropped to only 1% of Tweets running up against the limit. Since we saw Tweets hit the character limit less often, we believe people spent less time editing their Tweets in the composer. This shows 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 (Rosen, 7 November 2017).

The logic is, to me, astounding: for Twitter, expanding the character limit was a way of making tweeting ‘easier’, as they considered that if people could write more it would make writing tweets faster and easier. Why? Because less editing would be involved.

In practical terms I disagree with Rosen and I don’t think this change will make ‘tweeting easier’. Not if by ‘tweeting’ we also understand the experience of reading Tweets. Under the heading “Keeping Twitter’s Brevity” in her post, Rosen writes:

We – and many of you – were concerned that timelines may fill up with 280 character Tweets, and people with the new limit would always use up the whole space. But that didn’t happen. Only 5% of Tweets sent were longer than 140 characters and only 2% were over 190 characters. As a result, your timeline reading experience should not substantially change, you’ll still see about the same amount of Tweets in your timeline. For reference, in the timeline, Tweets with an image or poll usually take up more space than a 190 character Tweet (Rosen, 7 November 2017).

I am willing to believe that at the volume of their Tweet sample during the testing period they only saw a 2% of Tweets over 190 characters. However, each user’s timeline will be different, and since not everyone is on Twitter all the time, the experience will also vary depending on the time one is on Twitter. Perhaps it is because it was the first day of general release, but my Timeline, in my perception, was noticeably transformed.

On the Web Client, it really looked like Tumblr. The issue goes beyond what it looks like as it involves as well what is being said– if ‘editing’ is considering too much effort and being able to type more is considered ‘easier’, do we really think the quality of the content (and content is experience too) will improve? What about the time a user is expected to ‘parse’ their timeline? Because wider lengths, more text, more space take more time to scan, to skim, to parse, to read, to engage with.

Interestingly, Twitter has not only extended a Tweet’s length to 280 characters, it has also changed the way it calculates it and displays it to the user. Where the user had a useful word count, now we see a circle visualising progress as we write. It does not give us an absolute count.

Until fairly recently, the length of a Tweet was measured by the number of codepoints in the NFC normalised version of the text. This was interesting to us interested in the multilingual Web for many reasons (read this). As Twitter explains in their twitter-text Parser documentation, ‘”max length” is no longer defined, and instead twitter-text uses a weighted scale specified by the Unicode code point ranges.’

This means that what we used to call in everyday parlance ‘the length of a Tweet’, meaning its word count, is now not an absolute measure but a weighting estimated by an algorithm.

Twitter is nearly obsessive-compulsive in the detail they provide on their Display Requirements. I am too busy and I haven’t had the time to look further in their Developer documentation to see if there’s a mention anywhere if any third-party apps could play with

  • weightedLength
  • permillage
  • isValid
  • displayTextRange
  • validDisplayTextRange

in order to display only Tweets with a weighted lenght of less than 140 characters, as suggested by Janet Gunter yesterday:

My suspicion is that Twitter would not be too happy considering how retentive they are about how their content should be displayed. However, such app, as suggested by Gunter, would definitely respond to what is many a keen Tweeter’s user experience.

Ultimately what interests me and frustrates me in equal measure is what this particular development (amongst others!) does tell us about the mutual influence of technology on culture/human behaviour/politics and of technology as politics. The ‘Tweeting made easier’ rationale pushed by Twitter’s product developers indicates their understanding of ‘tweeting’ is that of posting content, i.e. pushing, broadcasting. According to their data, most users will find it easier to type more- what about those reading Tweets? We shouldn’t worry because not that many will tweet beyond 190 characters, they say. It does not make real sense.

What makes sense is how this change fits within a culture of no accountability, where the old-guard of media broadcasting and multinational corporations are the loudest voices (i.e. DJT). My guess is that this will force even more veteran Twitter users to behave completely different on Twitter if not leave the service at all. We will be pushed out as we won’t have the time nor the patience for cluttered timelines full of unnecessary extra detail. Instead of engagement, it is likely to promote more disengagement. Will we still call it microblogging?








[Who cares anyway? Everything is tl;dr now. My voice is one amongst millions- who has the time, the ‘attention’ to read?]