How to Use (And Mostly Not Use) 280 characters on Twitter

Twitter recently supersized us, expanding where we mostly don’t need to spread out. And we are already consuming what was added, filling up our proverbial stretchy pants during this Thanksgiving season. With bigger tweets as with bigger portions, many of us need to exercise restraint.

The second helping was of characters, growing tweets to a maximum of 280. To many of us, that feels like two tweets and too much. I’m accustomed to 140 characters, that little dorm fridge of cool, the origami I folded ideas into. I joined Twitter in April 2008, a year after it blew up at SXSW, so I’m not an early adopter, but early enough to have a history.

A year ago Twitter excluded photos from its character count so that you could add a photo to a tweet and still put 140 characters of text in a tweet. I was dubious, but adjusted. Previously putting a photo, a link, and a hashtag in a tweet quickly shrank your ability to say much.

Now Twitter has doubled its character count. This paragraph is what used to be able to fit into a tweet. The paragraph above this fits now.

That’s a huge difference – especially for readers. The great thing about scrolling Twitter has always been the quick succession of class-clown quips, news headlines, and random snippets. Now a tweet can be – relatively speaking – massive:

Look at the size of that thing! It’s like a greeting card! As the sender of that tweet, Yosemite does a nice thing: Posting an atmospheric photo, capturing the mission of the park, and engaging its community. As the reader of that tweet, my reaction is snark. (It is Twitter.) In response to the query “What has Yosemite inspired in you?” I tweeted:

How do others feel?

Twitter user @goldengateblond (here on Medium, shauna), whose political barbs often sharply point our truths with hilarity and insight, told me “At first I kind of hated the idea, but for news and political junkies like me who follow a ton of journalists and pundits, I like that they now have more space to deliver information. If nothing else, tweetstorms may get shorter (and who can’t get behind that). Overall I think 280 is a shiny toy most people will max out and play with a while before eventually settling on using only what they need.”

Jason Keath, founder of Social Fresh social media conferences, “fixed” my tweet on the 280 change, then told me: “I’m not in favor of 280. There’s a certain culture around the brevity of Tweets that already feels lost. That said, I’m pro-Twitter trying new things, so people need to just roll with it. We will definitely see more super lists (which I don’t hate) and soliloquies. Just keep in mind the types of post you usually ignore. Long paragraphs with no breaks encourage your followers to scroll on by. Maybe we can all vote who is using 280 well and who isn’t? And those with low marks just get truncated. Solved.”

Political data guru Nate Silver sees major repercussions for the most prominent tweeter in the world:

And the inspired and righteous comedian Megan Amram stipulated a specific and relevant purpose:

Even 280 seems to want to expand:

And some say Twitter addressed the wrong issue:

What about you, your business, your character count – which is now more for you to patrol and others to troll. Here are my thoughts in a tweet:

That’s 209 characters. So easy to expand. To elaborate further on elaborating further:

  1. Be concise. “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit /And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, / I will be brief” says Polonius — a blowhard who is often wrong — in a “Hamlet” speech that is neither brief nor witty. Tweets are like church signs, the middle-America proverbs that can be hilarious or preachy. You want to know in this life, not the next, which they are. Reward your readers by revealing which as quickly as possible. Then they are more likely to keep reading you.

2. When you go past 140, make it clear why. Twitter was never a place to be mealy-mouthed, and expanded Twitter goes even further in that direction. If you are making a point by writing a longer tweet, dare to be bold. Bring the point home.

3. Twitter is not texting. Now that we have 280 there is no excuse for fractured, tortured language. Text-speak takes place on the fly with someone you know well. It is a one-on-one conversation. You can say “shut up” to a friend who knows you mean “wow, that’s surprising.” If you say it to a room on people, there’s a much larger chance people think you mean “shut up.”

4. The essence of good writing is rewriting. The great thing about social media is that one person can be writer, editor, and publisher. This can lead to frictionless inspiration in a hurry. It also has resulted in an era of bad writing. 280 characters can let you off the hook of crafting your prose. Don’t let it.

5. Just because you write short doesn’t mean they won’t hang out. And just because you write long doesn’t mean they will.

Written by

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.

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