Twitter users get more space but its unlikely to dilute the nastiness

It’s the preferred tool for many public figures, yet mainstream users want ways to deter trolls not more characters, writes Rhodri Marsden

FILE PHOTO: People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo
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It was William Shakespeare who stated, about 400 years ago, that "brevity is the soul of wit". If you take a peek at Twitter on any given day, however, you'll find plenty of evidence to the contrary, and its value as a medium has always been doubted. Even when Twitter launched in 2006, critics were quick to dismiss it and its 140-character posts as inconsequential. Why would anyone choose to express themselves in such a constrained, straitjacketed form?

Hundreds of millions of people made that choice, however, and Twitter became the ­preferred online ­communication tool for many private citizens, public figures and anonymous trolls alike. Its brightest and most literate users always enjoyed the challenge of being succinct. But the character limit came with inherent problems.

Over the course of a decade, it became clear that nuanced discussions were difficult to have, while slanging matches and name-calling were very easy indeed; as a consequence, Twitter gained something of a toxic reputation. On Tuesday night the service admitted that the limit had become a "cause of frustration" for many users, and it would be giving more characters for them to play with: 140 more, to be precise – a total of 280.

The publicly given reason given for this change is the mismatch of experience between, say, a Japanese user and an American user. A Twitter blog post explained that the Japanese language needs fewer characters than English to convey the same idea, so by giving English speakers more characters this unfairness would be resolved. Jack ­Dorsey, the founder, described it as a "small change, but a big move". The pertinent questions are "why now?" and "will it change anything?"


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Over the years, Twitter has slowly given users more room for expression, for example by not counting usernames and picture URLs towards the 140-character limit. But Twitter's primary concern is the attraction and retention of new users. Most people using the service for the first time find it baffling; streams of messages they're not particularly interested in, and little response to their own tweets. Experienced users have always found ways around the 140-character limit when they've needed to: text-speak abbreviations, screengrabs of paragraphs from Word documents posted as images, and, more recently, the habit of tweetstorming, which is the practice of splitting an essay across dozens of tweets and labelling each one as 1/32, 2/32 and so on. But if anything, that has made it more confusing to anyone who happens to ­wander in. Twitter's hope is that the new limit, 280 ­characters, will be more user friendly, and its appeal will be mag ically broadened.

But the reaction to Twitter's "big move" has been one of disbelief that more fundamental problems haven't been addressed instead, problems that many believe contribute far more to its perceived toxicity – such as bullying, abuse, racism, misogyny, bots and misinformation. The company seems to consider those things a case of PEBKAC (Problem exists between keyboard and chair) rather than a problem with the service. But for as long as the chances of having an unpleasant experience on Twitter remain high, people will continue to steer clear. One wag suggested the change might have been made because the current US administration found 140 characters insufficient to "formulate policy" and make "legislative announcements", and there's little doubt that president Donald Trump's embrace of the medium has done little to improve Twitter's PR. But it has also shown that Twitter is no place for arguments to be settled, issues resolved or minds changed, and 140 extra characters won't change that.

Space may have been offered for more creativity and wit to be displayed but it's more likely to be filled with controversy and acrimony.