Twitter’s 140 Character Limit Objectively Sucks

There was a time where I hated the concept of twitter. It made absolutely no sense to me. Why would ANYONE use such a service? Hell, I wouldn’t even use facebook for a long time. Now I’m on everything and I’m a social networking junky. Twitter is by far my FAVORITE place. It allows me to interact with fans and talk to people in a way that is less personal than instant messaging. If you want to interact with me regularly, Twitter is the place to do it.

… but I have this bitter-sweet relationship with Twitter because I really really hate the 140 character limit. I like twitter because (unlike say, Twitter) it is public and has a very public culture. Facebook lets you subscribe to feeds, but the culture isn’t the same as Twitter. I also like that you can’t use twitter for blogging. That would be a service like Livejournal. But 140 characters is just a bad number, no matter what a plethora of change fearing articles on the subject might say. The argument is over and app.net is the silver bullet. Let’s look at app.net’s Global Timeline. App.net has a character limit of 256. Are the results poison to the very idea of twitter? What percentage of posts do you see that even exceed 140 characters? The truth is simple — people aren’t going to start spamming twitter with bigger posts. Most people don’t have that much to say. What 256 characters mean is when they say it, they can say it well.

Critics will say “140 characters means you have to be succinct and get to the point”. Those people are lazy anti-intellectuals (well no, they’re probably all nice guys and gals, but they’re being those things on accident). How many discussions happen on twitter where someone tries to fit a complex idea on twitter and then has to spend 3 tweets explaining what they meant and correcting a whole bunch of people sending angry @ replies? Twitter is about communication (well, according to Twitter it’s self, it’s about BRANDS and FAMOUS PEOPLE but whatever, this doesn’t affect those things anyways). If the limit you have on communication is crummy, you communicate crummy, crude or simple ideas. Junk food thoughts, stripped of elegance or nuance. This stuff isn’t art — it’s probably bad for you. So in practice, the 256 character limit on app.net only comes up when it needs to.

But let’s forget app.net. It costs money to use, so it’s largely irrelevant for people like me. Even if I was willing to fork over money, not enough people will be willing to use the service to make it worthwhile to me.

What I want to say that I believe 140 characters is an objectively bad number. First, let us ask — why is Twitter 140 characters? Most people know the answer to this one. 160 characters is the SMS. Twitter reserves 20 characters for user names. Now, at this point, SMS use of twitter is probably low — low enough that they could simply cut off tweets that exceed the limit if need be and only a few users would be effected, so lets cut the SMS support out of this. At this point, 140 characters is cultural. I noticed an amazing thing over time. I rarely notice the SMS character limit, but hit it all the time on twitter. Usually with less than 20 characters. I’ve theorized for a long time that 160 characters were chosen to comfortably accommodate 3 sentences. Turns out that wasn’t a crazy guess.

Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.

As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.

That became Hillebrand’s magic number — and set the standard for one of today’s most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. “Perfectly sufficient.”

Hillebrand picked a number that would not stifle conversation. By reducing the limit makes 3 comfortable lines of text become a battle of compromise. Sure, you might say, do 2 tweets. But you usually want each tweet to be its own thought. Since each tweet should be its own package, you actually WASTE words trying to make something two tweets when it would be much better suited for one. Twitter does not support brevity, it encourages awkward waste and it’s hard not to notice this when you start getting into in-depth @ replies (which are usually far more sloppy than what most people post in their main stream). It’s hard to argue that 140 has any magical properties 160, 200 or 256 characters don’t have and by following Hillebrand’s reasoning, it’s easy to see why 140 characters can be so oppressive to those of us who try to have conversations on twitter. 140 characters is a bad limit that exists only due to former technological limitations. We’re past that now and it’s time to move on. It’s not going to become a blogging service. It’ll just become easier to say certain things we occasional want to say.

The limit might never change and if a better competitor never comes, I’ll just have to deal with it. But when I read people defend the 140 character limit, my head spins.