Do you really need 280 characters?

This week Twitter decided to roll out an experiment in which certain people (I’m not one of them) were provided with the opportunity to write Tweets that are twice as long as normal. The company has increased the maximum length of a Tweet from 140 characters to 280. 

To understand why, it’s good to know the history of Twitter. The short messages were never really intended to be used in the way they are now. Originally, Twitter was meant to be a web interface to sending SMS text messages on telephones. They are restricted to 160 characters. So, Twitter has an 18 character limit on the name or “handle” you use. There is an @ sign before your name and then a space after it, producing a total of 20 characters of identification material. Out of the 160 available, that just leaves 140 for the actual message.

But as soon as Twitter began its users took it in a different direction, mainly as a web service with minimal usage on the phone. Remember too, that Twitter was invented before the launch of modern smartphones. They have also helped change Twitter, making usage much more based around an app.

As a result that historical 140 character limit is no longer necessary as almost no-one receives Tweets through their SMS text message system. Plus, millions of Tweets now include images and video, so what’s the point of the limit?

Twitter is currently allowing some of its “Verified” Twits to send out 280 character messages. The experiment has been met, so far, with widespread derision. Indeed, I Tweeted “So @Twitter #280characters eh? That’s enough space to be twice as annoying, twice as rude and twice as narcissistic.” There are also plenty of Tweets suggesting what Donald Trump might do with double the amount of space. Don’t ask…!

The fact is, you’ve always been able to Tweet more than 140 characters. People who want to write more will sometimes number their Tweets so that you can read the material in sequence. Others use services like TwitLonger which let you write Tweets as long as you like..!

But there is one overarching question to all of this: why?

Ultimately it all boils down to are we using the right tools for the task at hand? If you want to send a message that is longer than 140 characters, then Twitter is the wrong tool.  Yet people try to find ways of making Twitter do what they want it to do, rather than thinking about using a better tool for the job. It’s rather like someone using a screwdriver to open something when a spanner is needed. You find that when people are doing DIY; they haven’t got the right tool in their box of tricks, so they attempt to use another device. That usually results in something getting broken, cuts and bruises and lots of swearing. It is cheaper, quicker and less stressful to go off to the local hardware store and buy the right tool.

The same is true with communication. The other day I was in an email chain that was going back and forth between a few people. I had not really responded to the email discussion, but I picked up the phone, spoke to two other people in the emails, sorted the problem and went back to work. They had been using email when the phone was better, quicker and more productive.

The Twitter expansion is encouraging people to use the wrong tool. When will Twitter stop – 560 characters? Or 1,120 of them? Already people skim across most Tweets, ignoring the vast majority that passes their way. Plus, the most re-tweeted items are those with 100 characters or fewer. In other words, the way people use Twitter and seem to prefer it, is as a means of concise, pithy communications. Increasing the character limit is going away from that style of usage.

But Twitter is not alone. YouTube used to allow you only to upload 10 minutes of video. Now, you can upload anything you like. The result? You can, if you wish, watch some “guru” or another droning on for an hour or more, sitting at their desk boring you to distraction. On the other hand, they could have put what they said in that video into a compelling, readable and thought-provoking document of 2,000 words. These individuals are using video when the printed word would be better. They couldn’t have done that a few years ago because the restriction of YouTube prevented it. Now, with the limits lifted, anyone can drone on and on and on and on and on….and they do…!

In the digital world, when there are no restrictions on a service, such as Twitter or YouTube, it means that people can post what they like. The result is they publish material on their favourite channel without much thought as to whether the service they are using is the appropriate one for their needs. 

Twitter is used by most people as a short-sharp and instant quick hit. Changing the character count takes it away from that kind of usage. It means that people will start using it for other types of messages. That will lead Twitter down the path of email, where people use it instead of a phone call. Similarly, some individuals write blog posts when a video would be better, such as in explaining a product or service. Others produce videos when an article is more appropriate. You can see where I am heading with all this.

Are you using the right communication tool for the job? Just because you have email does not mean you need to use it for everything. Just because you can Tweet twice as much as before, does not mean you have to. Just because you have a video camera on top of your computer doesn’t mean you have to switch it on. 

Whenever we have something to communicate we should ask ourselves a question: am I using the right tool? 

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