Social Media

Twitter's New Character Count Could Be a Blessing or a Curse

Saying something smart, funny, or meaningful in 140 characters was a challenge that only some mastered. Now our timelines will be clogged by thick text blocks.
September 27, 2017, 5:05pm
Asset source: Shutterstock | Art by Noel Ransome

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. Twitter has recently decided to double its character limit from 140 to 280. This will probably ruin the website. I'm not sure if this is good or bad because Twitter is something I love to hate.

Every social media platform carves itself into our psyches in its own special way. Facebook is where you go to find out which of your relatives are racist and which of your enemies from high school have matured into the awful failures you always knew they would be as you seethed alone in your room reading the horrible things they wrote about you on Piczo and which ones went on to lead rich fulfilling lives because there is no such thing as justice. Instagram is for carefully curating your #bestlife through artfully filtered photographs in a Sisyphean race to outrun cybernetic depression. Tumblr is for the emancipatory erotic thrill of finding people who are weird in the very precise and obscure way you are. Snapchat is for sexting or reading BuzzFeed, I don't know.

And Twitter: Twitter is a clear glimpse at the 21st-century id. This is mostly a horror show. You can discover which of your childhood celebrity heroes are actually complete fucking idiots with horrible opinions and bad taste in sports teams, or which political journalists should absolutely not quit their day jobs to become comedians. It brings all the joy and terror of classic web forum culture directly into mainstream daily life wherein anonymous strangers with Nazi sympathies fly out of nowhere to get up into your mentions and remind you, repeatedly, that you are a piece of shit. (God help you if you are a woman or person of color on this website.) It is a constant stream of anxiety pumped directly into your eyeballs nearly all hours of the day, and an alarming number of human beings need it to do their jobs. There is a non-zero chance that nuclear war will erupt out of Twitter, which in itself is a perfect metaphor for the website's awful importance.

But when it's good, my God, it is so good. For all the awful bullshit, it is also one of the only spaces where the meek can dunk on the rich and powerful with impunity. Saying something smart or funny or meaningful in 140 characters is a challenge and the people who can do it consistently are masters. It forced people to be concise and outed blowhards by forcing them to string together never-ending, unparseable tweet storms (with all apologies to Jeet Heer, whose tweet lectures are a treasure and I will fight you over this). Posting is an art form, and Twitter's arbitrary limit sharpened good posts into pithy masterpieces. Regular people have been able to leverage tweet prowess into meaningful connections with other people and even occasionally paying jobs. (I managed to do both, but this may also be an argument for why the site is terrible.)


Naturally, the website has always gone out of its way to discourage the good things and showcase the bad. Despite years of user demands to do something about the ubiquitous trolling and harassment that drives longtime users of the site and keeps new ones from signing up, Twitter is more preoccupied with the same dumbass cosmetic tweaks that pass for innovation among other intellectually bankrupt tech outfits. Your account will get suspended if you tweet a curse word at someone with a blue check but tweet-storms of hate speech are all above board because the algorithm that screens the feed is as soulless as the people who programmed it.

And now the coup de grace: 280 characters. Instead of the maddening and beautiful brevity that made the site worth using, our timelines are about to be clogged by thick blocks of text from self-righteous nerds who need 30 adverbs to scream about how social justice warriors and/or Russian hacking ruined the latest brain-dead superhero blockbuster and their childhoods. Cool, awesome, good. The one aesthetic pleasure anyone could take on this awful website will be sucked away because no one who runs Twitter actually understands why people use it.

Anyway, the silver lining in all of this is that maybe wading through obnoxious 280-character blocks will be the straw that breaks the camel's back and destroys the website. Dumbass posts from politicians will no longer make the news and a critical link in the chain of constant, endless, and overwhelming online connectivity will be severed forever. Maybe we can even go back to posting on web forums like back in the early 2000s.

Who am I kidding, though? Twitter is psychic crack cocaine, and everyone who uses it has Stockholm syndrome. I hate this fucking website, and yet I must refresh.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.