According to The Emily Post Institute, when somebody gives you a gift you don’t want, the etiquette is pretty clear: “Issue a warm thank-you; after all, someone did buy you a gift, even if they missed the mark.”
If the gift is a complete misfire, the Institute says, “sometimes we have to secretly wonder what the giver was thinking. Just wonder that silently.”
That’s not at all what happened on Twitter this week when users were greeted with the news that a test to expand the microblogging social media service to 280 characters was going to become the norm for pretty much all users.
Listen to a discussion on this topic on this week’s “Texas Standard” radio segment.
In a post titled “Tweeting Made Easier,” the company’s product manager Aliza Rosen wrote: “We saw when people needed to use more than 140 characters, they Tweeted more easily and more often. But importantly, people Tweeted below 140 most of the time and the brevity of Twitter remained.”
Twitter’s destroyed its USP. The whole point, for me, was how inventive people could be within that concise framework. #Twitter280characters— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) November 8, 2017
News outlets who cover tech culture highlighted complaints from users. Some of the complaints were pretty valid. Some suggested, for instance, that gleeful users experimenting with their newfound space were ruining the aesthetics of the Twitter experience.
Timeline looks like a CVS receipt.— Y🍩h 🏖 (@Yoh31) November 8, 2017
These are many of the same users who have been begging for 10 years for a way to edit Tweets after they’ve been published. It’s a common feature on most social networks. A lot of users would also like better ways to curb toxic harassment and widespread verbal abuse on Twitter.
But the largely unwanted gift of these 280 characters is not for long-time users. Those of us who spent years honing the art and craft of super-brief, entertaining and informative messages aren’t the target. In “Making Tweeting Easier,” the company is trying to prop up its slowing growth with an influx of new users. This larger canvas is to make Twitter move inviting and less intimidating for newbies who might not want restrictive character limits.
And in finding its business goals at odds with what its users really want or need, Twitter’s not unique. This week, Snap, the company behind Snapchat, said it will simplify its quirky interface in December after a pretty awful financial quarter.
Never mind that Snap’s users haven’t been clamoring for a new interface. Or that its weird design is what what made Snapchat innovative and unique in the first place. When you have to get enough new users through the door to please Wall Street as a public company, priorities change.
It will sound familiar to anyone who follows the world’s biggest social network, 1.5-billion-user strong Facebook. Despite evidence that the way its business operates actively harms users and its focus on community, it is a giant ship moving ahead on its own course.
Personally, I’m torn. At the 11-year mark, Twitter seems to be struggling to evolve into something more than a political hate machine in 2017. It’s not unreasonable to believe that a more user-friendly interface might draw new blood and freshen up timelines.
But it also feels as if Twitter is sidestepping a more philosophical problem: When you remove forced brevity, are you still Twitter? If Twitter has the same number of characters as other platforms, how does it stand out from Facebook and others? Why use Twitter when you cut the legs out from the under the brief-by-necessity cleverness of its users? What happens when you remove the key limitation that defines you?
Some heavy Twitter users, myself included, will likely continue to keep messages brief.
I can see a case for longer Tweets during emergency news events when there’s simply no time to craft a tight message without leaving out key context. But the part of me that still treasures the 2007-2011 golden age of Twitter, when it was a community of experimenters and seekers, mourns a bit.
Having 280 characters will be too much of a good thing for some, and a gift many of us will keep in the closet until we really, really need it.
But thanks anyway, Twitter.