140 characters – the perfect size

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.

140chars

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 πŸ™‚

Personally, I think 140 characters is the ideal length for microblog-style status updates.

Readability

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.

Write-ability

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? πŸ˜‰

Flexibility

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)

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10 responses to “140 characters – the perfect size

  1. Dear Andy,
    I loved this blog post. It was somehow satisfying to just hear you sharing, validating, comforting the lost 140 user.

    I admit I am relatively new to Twitter. I keep trying and see value on a few levels, but… I find it kind of cold and unfriendly. Except for a few friendly faces and their 140s that show up here and there. There is also a kind spam from some people; seems there are so many who want you to follow…but is anyone listening? or is it that I don’t know how to be a tweating friend? πŸ™‚

    The 140 for me is a new discipline. Trying to say something meaningful briefly, when obviously I am into paragraphs by nature. πŸ™‚ On some days I question if this is the point πŸ™‚ LOL

    Thanks for always being out there to forge the path by example. Always curious and learning.

    Debbe

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  2. I sometimes think of Twitter as like photography. Anyone can point a camera and take a snapshot, but not every photo is, or has to be, a gloriously composed work of art, with every detail of the scene fitting perfectly into the limits imposed by the frame.
    So with Twitter, most people are just having fun and/or sharing information, but with thought, effort and maybe a bit of talent you can make 140 characters a lot more too. Not that I ever manage it, mind …

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  3. Great post Andy, I agree that 140 is a very scannable length. What got me hooked on Twitter, and Pownce in the early days was watching the stream of consciousness that these tools evoked with their short mutterings.

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  4. “Constraints are liberating”

    Hashtags, @replies, url shorteners have all evolved organically because of the 140 character limit. It’s interesting to see what happens when people operate in constrained environments.

    Twitter doesn’t try to be all things to all people and has blossomed as a result.

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  5. Agree with @James above. Constraints are liberating and allow for creativity. Would be nice to have links and @s that don’t use up the 140 characters, though.

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  6. To my mind, the 140 character limit is a bug, not a feature – a technical restriction, if one is being generous. The fact that it’s derived from an SMS limit is really just testament to that.

    I agree that brevity is a benefit (I’m a big fan of Strunk and White, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style). But enforced brevity? No thanks, it’s just annoying.

    I use Twitter despite its many flaws, not because of them. Give me a richer platform with the same community and I’d give it up in an instant.

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  7. Pingback: Dogear-Nation – Episode 113 – Don’t Tick off a Musician on YouTube | Dogear Nation

  8. Lots of people talking about restraints of twitter which made me think of the talk that SocialMedian CEO Jason Goldberg who said now is the best time to start a business, relating it to the strict resources he found himself in when trying to get SM up and running.

    Spoiled for choice, spoiled for resources. Sometimes having too much can mean that creativity is diminished. The success of Twitter is down to the brevity of the medium.

    Less is most certainly more when you want to get your point across.. I’ve said too much already.

    Like

  9. If anyone is interested I built an app that lets you post longer than 140 characters called http://www.tweetc.com. It will also let you post by email and auto embed links πŸ™‚

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  10. See, now I disagree.

    I don’t understand this whole 140 character length limit on twitter posts. I have literally just joined and did not know about it and now I have to confine everything into text abbreviation speak in order to be under the limit.

    Well, I miss the days when an old person like Granpa Simpson would go on and on and on and on.

    Like

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