For part 2 of our “Tales from the Land of Twitter” series, let’s discuss “the brevity thing” with Twitter. Just about everyone knows that a single tweet is limited to 140 characters, which leads to some understandable skepticism about why Twitter can possibly be of any use.
(By the way, a la Gary Gulman, I think the number 140 should call up Twitter every morning and say, “THANK you for making me famous. I mean, hell, before you showed up, I had nothing going on.”)
I certainly felt skeptical myself about such a stingy limit at first. And you can always tell a Twitter n00b when you see an account profile that says something like “Nothing worth saying can be said in only 140 characters,” or, “I cannot possibly describe myself in only 160 characters.” (The tweets have a limit of 140, but the user profile is allowed — oh luxury — to go up to 160.)
Incidentally, I always want to smack these people: “Yes, unlike with the rest of us brain-dead grubs on Twitter, capturing your galaxy-spanning thoughts in 140 characters would be like trying to scoop up the ocean in a teaspoon.”
So, anyway, it turns out this constraint of 140 characters is not such a big deal. Arguably, it’s not a limitation at all, but a strength.
Why it’s not a big deal: every tweet is basically either a brief status update, or else an announcement of a link to some other webpage (where there is no 140-character limit). That’s it.
So, if you’ve got some magnum opus to share with the world, obviously you won’t do it on Twitter — but you can announce it there, and point people to where that magnum opus is located. Twitter’s not trying to replace longer-form media; rather, it complements it by giving people a way to advertise those long blog entries (like this one).
And if all you’re trying to do is share little status updates — well, 140 characters is usually plenty.
Why the limit turns out to be a strength: we’re creatures of short attention spans. By forcing everyone to keep it brief, Twitter enables you to trawl through the missives of far more people than you otherwise could, thus giving you more variety in your feed.
In that sense, Twitter is nothing more than a blog aggregator — but one that gives you easy access to just about everyone ever, thanks to its wide adoption, and the fact that it doesn’t require you to have a real-life relationship with someone to “follow” them.
Sometimes, though, people try to buck the 140-character limit anyway. I’ve seen two different approaches to this.
The first is to just issue multiple tweets until you’ve said your piece. Simple enough. But one of the problems with this approach (besides the risk of annoying your followers) is that your stream of proclamations can appear interrupted on your friends’ Twitter feeds, like this:
Uh-oh, Ezra, you’ve been interrupted! Now, in this case it was only by one person, but often it’s a lot more. And so you’ll work your way down the feed and see some non-sequitur tweet that’s actually the capstone to some monologue, but is coming to you completely out of context, like, “If you don’t agree, you’re a jackass.”
The other approach I’ve seen is to use an app called TwitLonger, which will post your surplus characters to another site, and provide a link in your tweet to that site — all automatically.
For example, here’s the tweet…
… and here’s the extension:
Amusingly, the “About” page for TwitLonger has the question “Doesn’t this go against the whole point of Twitter?”; the creator’s answer begins with the word “Absolutely.”