Five years ago this month, Twitter opened itself up to the public. The new service, initially called Twttr, was born out of software engineer Jack Dorsey’s fascination with an overlooked corner of the modern metropolis—the central dispatch systems that track delivery trucks, taxis, emergency vehicles, and bike messengers as they’re moving about town. As Dorsey once told the Los Angeles Times, the logs of central dispatchers contained “this very rich sense of what’s happening right now in the city.” For a long time, Dorsey tried to build a public version of that log. It was only around 2005, when text messaging began to take off in America, that his dream became technically feasible. There was only one problem with building Twittr on mobile carriers’ SMS system, though—texts were limited to 160 characters, and if you included space for a user’s handle, that left only 140 characters per message.
What could you say in 140 characters? Not a whole lot—and that was the point. Dorsey believed that Twitter would be used for status updates—his prototypical tweets were “in bed” and “going to park,” and his first real tweet was “inviting coworkers.” That’s not how we use Twitter nowadays. In 2009, the company acknowledged that its service had “outgrown the concept of personal status updates,” and it changed its home-screen prompt from “What are you doing?” to the more open-ended “What’s happening?”
As far as I can tell, though, Twitter has never considered removing the 140-character limit, and Twitter’s embrace of this constraint has been held up as one of the key reasons for the service’s success. But I’m hoping Twitter celebrates its fifth birthday by rethinking this stubborn stance. The 140-character limit now feels less like a feature than a big, obvious bug. I don’t want Twitter to allow messages of unlimited length, as that would encourage people to drone on interminably. But since very few Twitter users now access the system through SMS, it’s technically possible for the network to accommodate longer tweets. I suggest doubling the ceiling—give me 280 characters, Jack, and I’ll give you the best tweets you’ve ever seen!
Why do I want more space? Forcing people to shrink their updates to 140 characters prevents meaningful interaction between users, short-circuits conversations, and turns otherwise straightforward thoughts into a bewildering jumble of txtese. Just look at Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s feed: ” Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said ‘time to delvr on health care’ When you are ’ hammer’ u think everything is NAIL I’m no NAIL.”*
Almost immediately after it launched, Twitter outgrew Dorsey’s central dispatch metaphor. Users quickly created a convention ( the @reply) that allowed them to talk to one another rather than just broadcast updates to the world. While Twitter made @replies a core part of the service, it has never done anything to improve conversations. Indeed, the site’s linear, non-threaded interface seems designed to frustrate interaction between users. The 140-character fence deepens the one-sidedness—it’s easy to formulate a single pithy update, but when someone engages you in a discussion, it’s nearly impossible to formulate a rejoinder that fits within the limit. It’s a cumbersome, annoying process; nearly every day, I abandon Twitter chats because I can’t think of shorter ways to tell @JackShafer that he’s wrong.
I got to thinking about the hassle of Twitter’s character limit during a Bloggingheads.tv chat with Technologizer’s Harry McCracken. We were talking about Google+, the search company’s new social site. McCracken likes the new service more than I do, but we both agreed that people seem to be having better conversations on Google+ than on either Twitter or Facebook. This is partly because Google+ is more accommodating of discussion—it displays replies right under the initial comment (unlike Twitter), and its clean look makes it more inviting than Facebook’s cluttered page. But what really pushes Google+ to the top is that it encourages depth: When you say something, people have the space to reply in a natural way. There’s room for nuance, for adding links to facts, for asking people to expand on their thoughts. Indeed, McCracken and I both worried that there might be too much discussion on Google+—as more people join the system, some of them will begin abusing the unlimited chat box, and suddenly we’ll be flooded by 2,000-word screeds. So I suggested a social network with a character limit just beyond 140—maybe something slightly under 300 characters. “That would be just about perfect,” McCracken said.
I think he was joking, but I’m not. Although I expect blistering attacks from Twitter fans, I suspect that if Twitter did expand the character limit, people would quickly become acolytes. More and more, I see people resorting to hacks to get around Twitter’s limit—they split their tweets up into multivolume epics, they use services like TwitLonger to add heft, or they direct people to posts on Facebook, Quora, and now Google+. Expanding beyond 140 would make these tricks unnecessary, allowing more conversation and interaction to take place within Twitter’s friendly confines. It would also make the site far more pleasant to use—I’m getting sick of racking my brain for shorter words every time I want to ask a straightforward question.
Proponents of Twitter’s limit argue that I should feel frustrated when I tweet. The classic defense of the 140-character perimeter is that, as with a haiku or sonnet, a rigid form inspires creativity. I don’t buy it. For one thing, that argument positions Twitter as more high-minded than it really is, or needs to be. Obviously, we aren’t all poets, and we shouldn’t have to be to use a mainstream social network. Rather than poetry, Twitter’s limit seems to encourage sloppiness and sound bites. You can’t fit a complicated argument in 140 characters, but it’s the perfect size to squeeze in ad-hominem attacks, to misdirect, or to shrug off people who challenge you. (See @keitholbermann.)
When I asked Carolyn Penner, a Twitter spokeswoman, whether the company would consider expanding the limit, she didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, she pointed me to a recent interview with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. When asked what he thought about Google+, Costolo suggested the new service was not a source for inspiration. “You know, if you just look in the sideview mirror at what are particular companies doing, and then you start to say Twitter is going to be the world in your pocket—now with video chat!—then you lose your way, right?” Costolo said. “So, we’re going to offer simplicity in a world of complexity, focus on our goal, while we understand what everyone else is doing.”
I think Costolo’s mainly right. Twitter’s greatest strength is that it’s very simple, and that allows it to moves quickly—at any particular moment, people are using it exactly as Dorsey imagined they would, to report and analyze every event going on in the world. But would 280 characters slow the network down, or make it harder to use? I don’t think so. If anything, leaving more space for tweets would make every Twitter user’s experience instantly less annoying. That can’t be a bad thing.
Correction, July 21, 2011: This article misidentified Chuck Grassley as representing Nebraska. (Return to the corrected sentence.)