It’s been less than 24 hours since Twitter announced its plan to, for some reason, expand the maximum number of characters allowed in a tweet from 140 to 280. The idea isn’t quite universally reviled—Farhad Manjoo reminded everyone he’s asked for this change for years (and once did so in the pages of Slate, bless him)—but it’s close: Judging by my own media-centric Twitter feed, at least, no one wants this. We hate this, and we fear change, and no thanks. But also, as long as Twitter is rolling out this doohickey as a test to random users, we kind of want to try it.
Like blue checkmarks next to the names of verified Twitter accounts, having those extra 140 characters of room to stretch out has instantly become a status symbol, even if it’s an arbitrary one. It’s a status symbol on a social network where a bunch of self-important nerds hang out, to be clear, but a status symbol nonetheless. For years, Twitter has been a world of haves and have-nots, the heavily followed and much-retweeted elites vs. the plebes tweeting into a barely engaged void. A higher character limit is just one more scrap to throw at the Twitter masses scrambling to get ahead. Twitter said in its blog post about the change that it will “try it out with a small group of people before we make a decision to launch to everyone.” So far, it seems like the people who’ve been granted those extra characters have been totally random, not those who have lots of followers or are otherwise important on the platform. President Trump, for example, is still a 140-character man as of this morning, but the former mayor of Washington, now a lowly councilmember, is basking in the glow of 280.
One exception to the random rule was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who showed off with a capacious tweet around the time of the announcement.
But even Dorsey’s own mother couldn’t use her VIP status to get access to the feature. No wasting any of those extra characters on N-E-P-O-T-I-S-M.
On Twitter, a platform where much of the fun has always been working within constraints, people are eager to see what they can do with the new character count. Already, they’re imagining adding signatures to their tweets, not because it will make the service work better or be more useful, but because it’s a new way to game (or undermine) the latest changes Twitter has handed down. There’s also a euphoria to trying out the new thing, even if it’s a dumb new thing that you didn’t ask for and claim not to want. After all, this is a service that has always trafficked in instant gratification, and unlike previous new features like Moments or rounded avatars (so future), these added characters present the opportunity for users to define what the best version of the new and improved longer tweet will be. Brevity be damned, some people want to roll up on the Twitter highway full of sedans in a tricked-out SUV. It’s gaudy, and it shouldn’t be true, but in a very basic way, bigger and newer approximates better.
It reminds me of 3-D movies. Everyone complains about how expensive and unnecessary they are now, but dammit if we didn’t all march to the theaters and plunk down money to see Avatar in 3-D back in 2009. Maybe the novelty of tweeting in 280 characters just to try it will become the self-fulfilling prophecy Twitter needs to show that, actually, this was a good idea.
One thing the 280 Club won’t be for very long, however, is exclusive. Ways for Twitter users to get around the random rollout and unlock longer tweeting are already emerging: The Next Web recommends this hack, and developer Juliette Pretot found an even easier loophole. So like most status symbols, it seems this one will ultimately be fleeting. Maybe one day you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren that you were one of the first people to post an extra-long tweet … or maybe by that point they’ll think Twitter is just a symptom of your dementia. Use those extra characters wisely.