This post will be longer than 140 characters in length
That’s OK though, because it’s a blog post. It’s not a tweet, an SMS, or a status update. It’s designed to be something longer and more in-depth. It’s a place where you the reader, and I as the author, can explore some thoughts in more detail.
In the past couple of months I’ve detected a number of debates around the “140 character limit” imposed by microblogging. In fact, this “limit” was pretty much invented / pioneered by the darling site of the moment, Twitter.
A few weeks ago, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey spoke at IBM Research in Almaden. During the talk, he described how they arrived at the infamous number of characters in a tweet… I’m paraphrasing here, but feel free to check the video for his exact words:
The maximum in an SMS message is 160 characters before breaking the message, so we took 15 characters for the username, 5 characters for formatting or whatever, and ended up at 140 characters… we wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the cheap $20 Nokia prepay cellphone…
With the runaway success of Twitter, and indeed with the increasing use of cellphones and mobile devices to access websites, the past few years have seen the proliferation of the 140 character status update. There are conferences dedicated to realtime microblogging (and, more specifically, to Twitter) which bear the magic number in their titles. We’ve become used to a more condensed form of communication, cutting out unnecessary words and letters from our online communications, and shortening our URLs.
However, one hundred and forty characters are not enough for everybody.
My friend Andrew frequently complains about the limit. Karl has been known to comment on the restrictions of shorter communications. Luis was famous for his thoughts which often used to run across 3 or 4 separate tweets – I unfollowed him for a while as a result, since he was breaking my preferred “rules”, but he’s better these days… I think he was suffering from email withdrawal :-)
Personally, I think 140 characters is the ideal length for microblog-style status updates.
For one thing, I’ve found that I’ve become accustomed to scanning realtime feeds from sites like FriendFeed and Facebook, and the short, sharp updates are very easy to read and digest. Almost accidentally, it seems as though @ev and @jack hit upon a length of update which is naturally easy to scan and absorb, without having to really stop, pause, and read. As Stowe Boyd noted back at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin last year (and again, I’m paraphrasing), the realtime web is like a continuous river of information, and blogs are becoming the rocks in that river, the places where more considered thoughts can be written and conversations held. Twitter, Friendfeed or whatever else provide, aggregate and prioritise the links and hooks out to the larger chunks of content. The fact that I barely have to pay attention to the stream but can quickly absorb the things that catch my eye enables Ambient Intimacy.
Sending a short status update is quick and easy – it barely takes a moment to type something of that length, and anything longer than 140 can be painful on a smaller mobile device, so it seems to strike a nice balance there. As Ben and Willie have pointed out, learning and adapting to the size constraint can have beneficial effects on the way we communicate in other media, too (my emails have become shorter and crisper, or more often have been replaced by quick IM updates).
On the other hand, there are some downsides to our newly-enforced brevity. Two areas of particular concern to me are the glut of URL shorteners (which may make URLs easier to exchange, but break one of the principles of the web,in my opinion); and the difficulty of archiving and preserving conversations. I wonder whether Google Wave will have an impact on either of those issues. Anyone at Google want to get me on the beta so I can give me opinion on that? ;-)
We’ve basically standardised the length of text updates to a whole bunch of online RESTful web services, making the convergence of clients to support those services much simpler. The mixture of content that can be shared over bite-sized streams of this kind has proven to be remarkable – from newsflashes, location updates, short links to larger articles or image snapshots, to IRC-style conversations and simple status information, and also to automated systems and pinging information between applications. I’ve often wondered whether Twitter is, in fact, the new nervous system of the Internet… and, according to Techcrunch, so have the company’s employees.
Why not make it longer?
The 140 debate became a bit sharper recently, where I commented on some internal tools at work that were using status updates of slightly longer lengths… say, 250 or 500 characters. The argument in favour of those lengths goes that 140 characters is just too short, sometimes. OK, but how is any other arbitrary limit any better? I’d argue that once you get to the 250 character size, I struggle to be able to simply scan through something. I’d also suggest that at 500 characters, you’re at the point of writing a short blog post.
I remember that at the genesis of one of the tools in question, a friend of mine argued for more characters to be allowed so that he could embed HTML tags in his updates. Strange how the huge variety of Twitter clients have managed to evolve rich hyperlinking features without having embedded HTML syntax in the updates, then.
Another of my colleagues suggested that you “need” more than 140 characters for some discussions. OK, but for those discussions you could either turn to IM (for one-to-one conversations) or a blog post, possibly linked to from a microblogging site, for a debate with comments. By the way, those blog posts and comments are likely to be indexed and retained by Google, whereas immediate and more generalised discussions held on a realtime service are still not effectively indexed. If you’re not satisfied with Twitter’s ability to thread and group conversations, there are other tools out there of a similar nature which do have some of those features. Also, if you want to go halfway towards a blog post, but have something to post which is a bit more than a status update, you might consider Tumblr or Posterous.
That was a lot more than 140 characters. Darn it.
(thanks to the always-excellent Geek & Poke for the cartoon used above, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)