September 27, 2017

On the theory that it takes more characters to say something in English than in Japanese and Korean...

... and that those who tweet in English have a disadvantage on Twitter, Twitter is talking about expanding its character limit from 140 to 280.
Although we feel confident about our data and the positive impact this change will have, we want to try it out with a small group of people before we make a decision to launch to everyone. What matters most is that this works for our community – we will be collecting data and gathering feedback along the way. We’re hoping fewer Tweets run into the character limit, which should make it easier for everyone to Tweet.
How many of us who experience Twitter in English even noticed that people who tweeted in Korean and Japanese were able to cram more meaning into a single tweet? I can't believe this was the pressure Twitter felt from users about the character limit. I can believe that there were Twitter insiders who could see that Twitter functioned differently in Korean and Japanese and arrived at the opinion that English-speaking Twitter users would appreciate a similar freedom to write without feeling so much pressure from the character limit.

I know, as a writer, I prefer blogging to tweeting because I like having the power to decide how long or short to go, and I think that works out for me, as a writer, because I go for concision on my own. But as a reader, I prefer Twitter. I read it several times a day and follow over 200 tweeters, while I read woefully few blogs. Bloggers tend to relax, get blabby, and don't edit for concision.
Twitter is about brevity. It's what makes it such a great way to see what's happening. Tweets get right to the point with the information or thoughts that matter. That is something we will never change.
But it is going to change!
We understand since many of you have been Tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters – we felt it, too. 
Like it's just a fetish and not something that really makes the reading experience better. 
But we tried this, saw the power of what it will do, and fell in love with this new, still brief, constraint. 
280 is still a limit, and Twitter may very well be right that 280 characters (in English) is better because of what it's already seeing writers do in Japanese and Korean. I might tweet more at 280, because after writing a blog post on a subject, I don't like the distraction of figuring out the puzzle of figuring out what the core thought putting it in as few words as possible. I can see what is lost, and I'm doing more work to fit their limit. I'm all about living freely in writing, so why would I want this endless restraint?

Fortune writes:
Many Twitter users try to work around the 140-character limit by posting their more verbose thoughts in a series of tweets, called "threads" or "tweet storms," with each subsequent tweet a "reply" to the previous post. Earlier this month, Twitter started testing a feature that allows users to pre-write a series of tweets and then post them all at once as a thread.

All of these tests and new features are examples of Twitter trying to make its service more user-friendly, as the company tries to battle disappointing user growth that has weighed down the company's share price (TWTR, -2.30%). Twitter's latest character limit test also comes at a time when the company is facing criticism over its efforts to cut down on the amount of offensive content, including hate speech, that is posted on the service.
I think Twitter is thinking about writers, not readers. Twitter — the hungry business — needs more and more people joining the giant conversation. For that, it needs to be fun and easy. Challenging writers to keep it super-short must seem to limit the growth of the enterprise. But how will the reader experience change? Perhaps it will be great. 280 characters is still short, and over-compressed writing can be harder to read. Certainly, the thread and "tweet storm" work-around isn't fun for the reader.

And maybe freedom from excessive compression will help with some of the problems that are seen as "offensive content." A few more words might eliminate some of the brusqueness, ambiguities, and misinterpretations. There might be less advantage in getting off a sudden potshot. With more room to write, you might take more time and cool off a bit or be tempted into elegance or wry humor or perhaps even hear the call of higher values.

I pasted that last sentence into the Twitter compose window and the 140-character limit cut me off before I could say "of higher values."

65 comments:

Rae said...

Wasn't 140 characters originally the maximum length of an SMS message? That's where I always thought the limit came from.

Big Mike said...

I assume this has something to with ASCII coding for English, which takes seven bits (one byte) per character, versus Unicode (two bytes per character) for other alphabets?

Simon Kenton said...

Twitter is one of several media I use to put out emergency information for the fire department. In a mountainous area where there are deadzones for radios, cellphones, and internet, it is sometimes the only way to get out. I'm going to welcome the new character limit; sometimes information - especially on evacuation areas and routes - cannot easily be fitted into 140 characters, even if you have had some practice writing headlines and haiku.

Ralph L said...

Short stories vs. novels
Writers get flabby when they get blabby.

tim in vermont said...

"Forgive this long letter as I had not time to write a shorter one" - Descartes maybe?

Anyway, I am not interested in a platform that censors for POV.

sparrow said...

"...brevity is the soul of wit ..."

Michael K said...

I don't use Twitter but a classmate of mine in medical school took his lecture notes in Chinese characters because it was faster.

Of course, that was back when students took notes. And attended lectures.

Bill Harshaw said...

Haven't learned how to thread your tweets?

Kate said...

Someone using Japanese may be able to say more, but the tweet takes up more room on the page than the English version. Twitter should compress kanji into unreadable blobs, just to be fair.

A great twitter Thread is built of discrete tweets that are little thematic bites. It's not just a blog pasted into place. The 140 character restriction, like the haiku form, creates perfection in writing, even when it's used in a tweetstorm.

Does the Twitter team even tweet?

Ralph L said...

When I did paste up for "The South's Foremost College Weekly," the editors/writers could seldom come up with headlines that fit the space, so I got to do most of them, usually at the last minute. Sometimes I cheated with multiple stacked headlines like the WSJ, but the Editor nixed that.

tim in vermont said...

Wait 'til they find out how soon you stopped clapping for Hillary.

Clayton Hennesey said...

Twitter is only raising its character limit because Gab.ai, currently suing Google on anti-trust grounds, has had a 300 character limit from its inception. While having subsequently incorporated other of Gab's innovations as well, Twitter has yet to adopt Gab's neutral free speech posture but rather persists in curating its users to politically correct standards.

Without President Trump as a star user Twitter's status as an ongoing concern would be problematic.

Owen said...

I think the answer is for Twitter to redistribute the character limits so there is parity in the information conveyed by users in different languages. I am tired of the Chinese and Koreans and Japanese enjoying a higher information content just because ideograms encode more meaning than alphanumeric symbols do. Let's cut their limit down from 140 to 100 or so, and give the difference to us, so we get 180 and can really develop our thoughts.

rhhardin said...

Mailroom clerk Pfc Wintergreen tossed out mail between competing generals when it was too prolix, in Catch-22.

He was the force that determined the outcomes of office politics.

rhhardin said...

Comments are limited to 4096 characters, according to google. It's actually less than that but who's counting.

MikeR said...

Surely the right solution is to punish the Japanese and Koreans?

Curious George said...

Give Trump another 140 characters? So much winning to come.

Assrat said...

>I assume this has something to with ASCII coding for English, which takes seven bits (one byte) per character, versus Unicode...

That's an interesting point. You want your code to be as portable as possible, but using ASCII for languages that could be supported would double the characters count.

SDaly said...

If this is going to be a universal change to 280, won't the Japanese and Koreans still have an unfair advantage?

Lem said...

Althouse shutin down the comments allowed me to discover twitter and Reddit, I suppose I should thank her.

Tank said...

Clayton Hennesey said...

Twitter is only raising its character limit because Gab.ai, currently suing Google on anti-trust grounds, has had a 300 character limit from its inception.


I'm guessing this is the real reason which, of course, they don't want to admit.

MikeR said...

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2998/do-most-languages-need-more-space-than-english
So part of the answer is that Japanese or Korean counts "character" in a weird way. Basically it's a code to translate each word in the dictionary into a single picture, then count that as one character (in Unicode each may be four characters...). Then make kids memorize the code, which takes some doing.

Sally327 said...

I'm not a fan of Twitter, I go in there, I feel as if I'm in danger of being trapped for eternity in the fifth circle of Hell.

I don't think the problems with Twitter have to do with the character limitation, that adding a little more capacity is going to attract more users. But then I don't think they have much room for innovation.

Henry said...

Brevity

Henry said...

is

Henry said...

the

Henry said...

soul

Henry said...

of

Henry said...

wit

Ralph L said...

Repetition is the death of it

Fritz said...

That post was a little blabby.

Henry said...


Twitter Net Income Cash Flow

2017Q2 -178.04M
2017Q1 -61.55M
2016Q4 -456.87M
2016Q3 -289.81M
2016Q2 -186.94M


Twitter can't die soon enough as far as I'm concerned. It is a parasite on the host of thought.

Unfortunately, there's this:

At its current burn rate, CEO Jack Dorsey has 412 years to turn the company around before it runs out of cash.

MadisonMan said...

Editing, as you might do in a Tweet to compress it down to the required length, is seldom a waste of time. Purge your writing of nonsense!

Bad Lieutenant said...

Mailroom clerk Pfc Wintergreen tossed out mail between competing generals when it was too prolix, in Catch-22.

He was the force that determined the outcomes of office politics.


Like Nineteen Eighty-four, RH, Catch-22 is not an instruction manual.

traditionalguy said...

The Hebrews win by skipping vowels. Phonetics are the culprit. You should have to guess at them. But an interesting thing is seeing continuing use of the abbreviations developed by young Beeper users in the 1990s.

Bad Lieutenant said...

And "I didn't have time to write a short one" was Pascal.

Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
Provincial Letters: Letter XVI (4 December 1656)
Literally: I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

Laslo Spatula said...

My disdain for Twitter comes from the use of emojis.

I see a line of them and I keep waiting for Pac-Man to come gobble them.

I am Laslo.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Twitter? Twaddle.

Laslo Spatula said...

If I had the time and energy to do something so stupid, I would Tweet "War and Peace" a sentence at a time.

Either that or "Jonathan Livingston Seagull".

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

“You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way".

“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.”

“He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all”

“To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived.”

Mind-blowing Tweets, those would be.

I am Laslo.

Assrat said...

You can put some profound thoughts on a bumper sticker. You can put some stupid thoughts on a bumper sticker. The fault is not the bumper sticker's.

Ann Althouse said...

"Haven't learned how to thread your tweets?"

I don't like how it looks. Seems like cheating. I just stay away or work until I make it fit.

Laslo Spatula said...

"I just stay away or work until I make it fit."

An important Life Lesson.

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...

"The 140 character restriction, like the haiku form, creates perfection in writing, even when it's used in a tweet storm."

Could you link to some examples of actual tweets that you think were perfection? I'd like to follow people who are great in formal terms (whatever they're writing about), but I find myself following people who don't have much style.

Ann Althouse said...

"My disdain for Twitter comes from the use of emojis. I see a line of them and I keep waiting for Pac-Man to come gobble them."

What I hate is stuff that moves. Gifs. I just detest having move on the page I'm trying to read.

Fernandinande said...

Clayton Hennesey said...
Twitter is only raising its character limit because Gab.ai,


Probably so, since their stated reason doesn't make any sense; by increasing the post size they just increased the absolute difference between the amount of info posted in various languages.

MayBee said...

Twitter isn't good in an emergency because of its brevity. It's good because it's open for all to see. You don't have to friend anyone or go to a news website. It's just all right there. The same thing that makes it terrible when people are bored and looking for something to scratch their angry itch makes it great in a fast breaking story.

Mrs. X said...

Althouse, I edited your sentence to make it fit:
‪With more room to write you might take time & cool off a bit or be tempted into elegance or wry humor or even hear the call of higher values‬
I wanted to see if it could be done without loss of meaning or style, and I think I did a good job! I tweet a bit for work, and I hate it when I hit the character limit, especially when I'm feeling too rushed to edit.

tds said...

if 140 characters give Japanese users an advantage (it does), then so do 280 characters. I'd understand if they raised limit to 280 for English users, but kept 140 for Japanese. That could level the playing field.



Original Mike said...

Don't care.

(and I cede my remaining 129 characters back to the Twitterverse).

Original Mike said...

The all-nighters I pulled before NIH grant submissions were usually consumed with getting the Research Plan section of the proposal to fit into the 12 page limit (and getting the footnotes numbers correct). By the last night it was already close but I'd have about half a page to lose. The last little bit usually came from cheating at grammer or spelling, but I always got it to fit. Millions of dolars were at stake.

God, I'm glad I'm retired!

LTC Ted said...

Contra PPACA & other "omnibus" bills, 140 tweet limit forces me 2 focus succinctly on 1 topic.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Twitter just "dueling bumper-stickers with emojis"?. One-liners and such. Pure attitude. I wouldn't know as I have never read it or written on it.

Henry said...

@Original Mike -- I was hired once to "design" a 50-page engineering proposal that fit in exactly 50 pages. The DoE or DoD, whomever it was, specified font size, font face, leading, page count, and margins.

The only loopholes were character spacing and hyphenation.

Balfegor said...

Re: MikeR:

So part of the answer is that Japanese or Korean counts "character" in a weird way. Basically it's a code to translate each word in the dictionary into a single picture, then count that as one character (in Unicode each may be four characters...). Then make kids memorize the code, which takes some doing.

It's not quite one to one.

First, you're thinking of Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji/hanja). Historically, both Japanese and Korean used Chinese characters, but nowadays they are rare in Korean (though you still sometimes see them used for clarification purposes). Most of those Chinese characters are used in compounds. For example, 可能性 (kanousei) is "possibility" in Japanese. But those characters can be used in different words too, e.g. 能力 (nouryoku, "ability").

Second, both Korean and Japanese also use syllabaries (like alphabets) that don't encode unique semantic content. Thus, for example, "Blog" is ブログ in Japanese (3 characters: bu-ro-gu) and 블로그 in Korean (3 characters: Beul-lo-guh). So they save one character vs. English. Not a huge difference.

This is less true of Korean, but Japanese saves space vis-a-vis Roman characters mostly through the use of compounds, e.g. 可能性 is 3 characters, but writing it all the way out (かのうせい) is 5. It can be even more dramatic, e.g. 東日本大震災 (the Touhoku Earthquake, or Higashi-Nihon Dai-Shinsai) would be ひがしにほんだいしんさい if you wrote it in the syllabary. 6 characters vs. 12.

Original Mike said...

"The DoE or DoD, whomever it was, specified font size, font face, leading, page count, and margins."

Of course they do. And don't count on your word-processor/printer getting the font size right. I had a little plastic font-gauge to make sure the font size was correct. I once had a grant returned because I had exceeded the page limit. I hadn't of course, as NIH eventually admitted. They couldn't count.

I've lost track of how many grant proposals I submitted, but for each one that's about all I did for two months; write that proposal.

Henry said...

In my work, translation drops can mess up UIs. Designers have a bad habit of designing best-case scenarios and translations usually happen late in the development process long after UI designs have been implemented. English to German usually means more characters, but my go-to case to stress a design is English to Brazilian Portuguese.

Known Unknown said...

The concise and exact use of words in writing or speech is the essence or embodiment of a specified quality of a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor. #280characters

MadisonMan said...

The last little bit usually came from cheating at grammer or spelling

I see what you did there.

I have a proposal right now, ready to go. It's 2 pages. (Yay!) You better believe it's not to the Federal Govt!

Most of the proposals I write are for Federal Agencies that say "We want you to do this for us, and have this much money to spend on it." That's the kind of proposal to write, because the money is there already.

Ralph L said...

"The DoE or DoD, whomever it was, specified font size, font face, leading, page count, and margins."
Probably apocryphal story about J Edgar:
FBI specified margins for memos to Hoover. Once he wrote "watch the borders" on one that he thought made them too narrow. So they sent agents to the US borders.

Jupiter said...

"But it is going to change!"

If you like your 140-character limit, you can keep your 140-character limit.

D said...

D's Twitter Editing Services can fix that 14 character problem of yours for only $0.43 a character. (Hint: let's look at that "perhaps"...)

Or, for $89.99 a month, let D's Editing write that tweet for you*, while you go out and do the things YOU really want to do. Why be stuck inside all day struggling to find the right 22 character subordinate clause, when you can be hiking and enjoying time with your family?!?

*Get 30 tweets a month, on randomized topics, from whatever perspective you want.
Except non-political perspectives. We're not Gods.

Owen said...

Brevity is dissolved by Twit.

stlcdr said...

"You can't say anything meaningful in 140 characters" Abraham Lincoln

stlcdr said...

They could have rollover characters; don't use me all in one tweet? Save em for the next!