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Here's an Insane Idea: Twitter Should Make 140 Characters the Minimum

Twitter at its worst is a hellscape of noise.
September 5, 2014, 7:00pm

Twitter at its worst is a hellscape of noise. And this is the beauty of the whole thing: It's a hellscape of your own choosing. A whole lot of smart people and less-than-smart people all spew their thoughts into the machine, and you get to pick and choose whose mindspray you'd like to bathe in.

But in practice, things never work out quite like that. Setting aside accounts that are dedicated to staying on message, most people aren't robots. Even people held up as "Smart Follows" stray into Insane Bullshit Land from time to time, and multiplied across a neverending timeline, it results in feeds that fairly regularly get overwhelmed by the same breaking news photo or the same lame topical jokes that just hover there, desperately in search of favs.

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(If, at this point, you think I'm taking this all way too seriously, I'd agree. I'll hit you up after I finish writing and we can go throw rocks into the river or hit baseballs or something.)

Basically, Twitter's noise issue isn't entirely self-imposed. Yes, unfollowing and blocking wide swathes of accounts can help, but humans are human; the people who make Twitter valuable—which varies for each of us, I'm sure—still drop plenty of throwaway thoughts.

Twitter, the company, recognizes that this rapid-fire brain dump-cannon it's created is stressful to new and old users alike. The company's proposed solution seems to be to mimic Facebook to an extent by introducing algorithmic filtering to its feed, presumably to help cut the shit.

This proposal was met with varying stages of uproar from serious users, some of whom generally lost their shit and threatened to quit the free service because they feel their thing is about to be changed by the company that owns it. That aside, I think my colleague Harry Cheadle said it best in his own piece on the algo news, writing that:

Twitter's fans, myself included, love that it doesn't hold your hand and show you things it suspects you'll be interested in. The act of sorting through a messy fountain of information and ideas is stimulating in and of itself, and you never know when you'll come across something that's fascinating but that you wouldn't have stumbled on except for a stray retweet you happened to click. Facebook's News Feed might be an easy way to check out your friends' social lives and keep up, in a vague way, with the biggest stories of the day, but it can rapidly become predictable and stale.

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I, instead, would like to propose a different solution. Instead of coddling users with some mysterious algorithm that a) will never be perfect (looking at you Facebook) and b) largely defeats the point of Twitter's stream in the first place, I think Twitter should take a more radical step: Instead of making its 140 character limit the maximum, Twitter should make it the minimum .

Sure, Long Twitter is completely unrealistic. Farhad Manjoo proposed removing the limit—but not adding a minimum—in 2011, and said it was all [but imminent in 2012](http://but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.), yet here we are with Twitter steadfastly holding to its limit and instead focusing on an algorithmic solution to its noise problem.

But that doesn't make it a bad idea. Twitter's 140 characters are a throwback to the days when it counted SMS functionality as one of its core selling points. Now, when smartphones rule the world and, at the very least, dropping $0.10 a text is almost entirely a thing of the past, the limit is completely arbitrary.

In terms of being able to absorb information, there's no other social platform quite well as equipped as Twitter, which can get closer to reading a Matrix screen than any other competitor if you want. But the forced emphasis on conciseness means Twitter isn't a place for deep discussion or thought; it's a place to link to those thoughts elsewhere and write "+1" at the top of your lungs.

That limit has set the bar pretty low across the board, and has produced two brutal side effects: Twitter as echo chamber, and, through the use of such delightful tactics as tweetstorms, Twitter as a (1/2)

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…clunky, self-important megaphone (2/2).

This might be too late an admission to prevent coming across like a Twittersplainer, but I'm well aware that I'm very guilty of the former. Take this tweet as an example, which I wrote half in the bag last night:

Tupac Hologram heads to Thailand to reenact "The Beach" but accidentally ends up in Myanmar, discovers opiates, becomes an organ smuggler

— Derek Mead (@derektmead) September 5, 2014

It is, objectively speaking, stupid and worthless. Actually, it might hold a negative worth, as it's more likely to lose followers than gain them. So why does it feel so good to barf it out into the ether?

It's not like I'm disinterested in having more followers; quite the contrary. The depressingly-tight relationship between my sense of self-worth and social metrics aside, there are a lot of smart people out there saying smart things, and it's nice to have a free-flowing platform to be able to promote (or try to promote) that work. And yet here we are, covered in a deluge of nothingness.

Sure, having a character minimum would still result in a fair bit of longer nothingness, but I'd also expect that needing to fill a quota, however small, would cut out a whole lot of the banalities, and perhaps bring us closer to the Slow Twitter idea that's been variously bandied about in the last year or two.

On the other, perhaps even more annoying hand are the people who have a LOT of thoughts, and absolutely must distribute them on Twitter because they know that no one will actually click on a link to their blog.

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Hence the rise of the tweetstorm, in which some egomaniac pumps out a dozen tweets in a row just to clog someone's feed with opinions that are still only half-fleshed out because 12 tweets still amounts to only 150 words or so. BuzzFeed's Charlie Warzel—who I admit I've unfollowed/refollowed for his own experiments with 100-tweet tweetstorms—put it well in May:

At its root, the tweetstorm™ feels like an abuse of power/influence or, at the very least, a slightly inconsiderate, oblivious way to engage with people who've chosen to follow you (granted, users can obviously choose to opt-out at any time with an unfollow). In earnestly embarking on a tweetstorm™, the tweetstormer™ is tacitly admitting that he or she has many important things to say and an infinite listener attention span in which to say them.

I asked Warzel if he still felt that way, and he said it was mostly an issue of "decorum and behavior," so not something that necessarily requires change on Twitter's end.

"What bothered me about the interest in tweetstorms—often times they are very smart—is this idea that i'm going to take over your timeline with all of these thoughts," he said over the phone. "That I'll go wherever I please and say whatever I want."

I also asked him if, as more of a Twitter Authority than I am, whether or not adding a character minimum was a dumb idea.

"I feel like if you changed the limit on Twitter, it would strip away this core playfulness," he said. "When you're constrained like that, to something so small, it makes you work to write something funny."

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Some guy using his laptop on the train like a Dumbass nerd lol pic.twitter.com/4RuSAZfI14

— very cool. and nice. (@dogboner) July 29, 2014

If there was ever a counterpoint to my argument, it's this.

So what would Long Twitter look like? Hopefully, it'd take the best of Twitter now—its incredible ability to spread information and discover new accounts—and add a bit of depth.

It'd perhaps quell the near-unhinged hatred of accounts like Saved You a Click by forcing link-sharers to actually elaborate on what they're sharing. And if, at the very least, such a minimum caused high-volume accounts to chill out for a second and open up some space for new voices afraid to jump on the already-racing treadmill, it'd be an outcome I imagine both users and Twitter itself could be happy with.

There's potential for the opposite to happen, with a length minimum, however small, providing a new barrier to entry. Warzel pointed out something inherently great about the throwaway nature of the platform: It's a bit harder to say something irrefutably terrible.

Long Twitter "would maybe discourage these tweetstorms, but you'd also encourage a lot of people to go deep on things they don't necessarily know a lot about. It's very low stakes to fire off one or two sentences," he said.

Motherboard's Jason Koebler also pointed out a pair of flaws in my argument, the first being that "it takes a long time to type stuff on smartphones sometimes."

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"Who has time to type all those characters?" he wrote in a chat.

My counter to that is this piece, about half of which I wrote on my shattered phone while on an airplane. 140 characters isn't even a full text message, so I don't think it's a hard barrier to leap to, at least not personally. People who use Yo might disagree.

Jason's other point was that "if you're #livetweeting something, you've got to write all of one full sentence." I don't really see that as a bad thing though, as half of the livetweets I've seen make no sense or end up in tweetstorm territory anyway. (Last night, trying to find the score of a US Open tennis match, I stumbled across a Sports Illustrated live blog that featured a "BOOM" comment with a link to a joke, which proves my point rather swimmingly.)

There's a good chance that Long Twitter would just end up with the same amount of  "i'm bored lol" tweets, but just, you know, they'd be longer. I suppose you'd still have to impose a character limit, but if they collapsed in the feed, it wouldn't much change the look of things.

And, of course, there's also the potential for Twitter to be FUNDAMENTALLY DESTROYED by the end of short tweets. "Breaking: I can't believe this: link" tweets and good jokes remain the service's bread and butter to a large degree, and I wouldn't want them to die.

But there's still a huge upside. There'd be more room to elaborate on thoughts, there'd be no more length-based excuse for aggregator accounts not attributing photos and other media, and it'd be pretty chill to have more space to explore ASCII art. Overall, Long Twitter would be a good thing, even if all it did was kill off "THIS!!! RT" manual retweets forever.