In Defense of 140 Characters

Twitter’s 140 character limit occurred because they envisioned it to be a SMS-centric network. SMS messages allow for 160 characters so 140 characters leaves 20 characters for a username. witter’s decision has had a transformative impact on human communication. In addition to ushering in the hashtag Twitter brought us into the world of abbreviations. Informal abbreviations came into being with SMS and AIM but before Twitter it was highly doubtful that you’d see an elected official publicly using those abbreviations.

Many lament this as a massacre of the English language. A few years ago I sat on a committee at a prominent University during which an administrator blamed Twitter for increasing poor writing skills (newsflash- that has more to do with cuts in funding).

But as someone who has always had a passing relationship with spelling (thank you LA public schools!) and a creative approach to grammar I don’t see the problem. Someone who is going to write well will always write well. A social media platform isn’t going to change that.

And I’ll go a step further. The 140 character limit makes us think before we speak or type. This is an important exercise and one with which I have always struggled. I had a professor for my Russian Politics class who made us write a paper on the rise of Stalin using 5 sources limited to one page, single spaced 12pt times new roman with 1 in margins. Every sentence that went over a page would drop out grade by one letter. This was one of the most frustrating and most rewarding exercises I did. It forced me to deliberately examine the need for each word and quote I used. Before then I had never realized how much filler I threw into my papers. I found that when I stripped the filler from my writing my argument became tighter and more reasoned.

This goes against the grain of free-flow communication. But let’s pull back and think about the best conversations that you have. A good conversation is a dialogue and when it’s really good it often involves talking at the same time. In other words- engaging each other.

I believe that the 140-character limit facilitates this. It forces us to open ourselves up to conversation and tweets asking “what do you mean?”. That’s a phrase you seldom see on Facebook. Rather those conversations tend to be an exchange of opinions and on average I find that conversations on Facebook tend to be less back and forth and more broadcasting. Of course there are many differences between Facebook and Twitter that could be the cause of this difference-chief among which is the difference in friends versus following/followers dynamic. But I believe that there is a correlation that should be taken into consideration.

All of this being said, adding a few characters to Twitter most likely wouldn’t change this dynamic. But my question is why bother? Let Twitter be a place for rapid-fire conversations shaped by the necessity of abbreviations and creative spelling. Don’t try to fit an entire thought into one tweet. Embrace the chaos.

Twitter is not Facebook and for that I’m very thankful.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Suzi,
    Great defending case for the platform.

    I actually find both FB and Twitter not the perfect place for a conversation but for opinion display. The real conversations in FB occurs in groups and selected pages.

    I totally agree with the benefits of the 140 character limit. It does make us think and revise what we write. It should be kept that way (though changes in the feed stream are more than welcome:)

    Like

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