The limits of Twitter’s 140-character limit

Matthew Ingram and Mark Hamilton have written posts defending Twitter from a backlash stirred up by some outlandish claims made after the China earthquake. Both make good not-outlandish arguments for why Twitter is important for journalism and news consumers, but after reading their posts I’m still stuck on the arbitrariness of Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Ingram points out that Twitter isn’t going to kill old media — it’s just one of many new tools that are potentially very good at one of old media’s main functions (in this case, getting the news to people in a timely fashion). He writes:

No one is suggesting that Twitter replace the emergency broadcast system, or that Twitterers should be thought of in the same breath as “first responders” such as search & rescue personnel. … But why shouldn’t we talk about how Twitter can be used to get information out about disasters?

It’s a good question, but I would follow up with one of my own: If Twitter is going to become a primary tool for getting information out about disasters, why place an artificial limit on the length of each disaster-information post?

Hamilton answers part of this question in his post. He writes:

The common argument against Twitter, IM and all the rest is that while they can provide information, they can’t provide context and depth. But when news breaks, it’s information that I want, not the narrative-nutgraf stories and not the context. The steady flow of information as the story develops is what I’m looking for (and that steady flow carries with it a lot of the context that some newspaper reporters insist only they can provide). (emphasis in original)

But what about information that’s shorter than a narrative nut graf but longer than 140 characters? In other words, why should the steady flow of information that Hamilton wants be restricted to 140-character blasts? As I wrote in this post, if it’s okay to continue a thought (or a news blast) across multiple Twitter posts, why have an arbitrary limit at all?

There’s another aspect of the 140 limit that troubles me. In that same post I wrote, “Ultimately I’m not sure why multiple 140-character Twitter posts are better than a simple live-blog.” After reading Ryan Sholin’s Twitter coverage of this week’s E&P Interactive Media Conference (where his ReportingOn project won a Knight News Challenge grant!), I’m still not sure.

Here’s a page of Sholin live-Twittering Arianna Huffington’s keynote speech. Sholin’s Twitter followers saw a page and a half of Huffington posts instead of having one post they could click on if they wanted to see the minute-by-minute updates. Plus, because of the 140-character limit there wasn’t room for any (or many) of Huffington’s actual quotes. As I said in my original post, quotes are often unnecessary in stories like these. But Twitter’s character limit means people who don’t speak in perfect pithy phrases just won’t be quoted.

Fast-forward a year or two, when many more people and news organizations will be covering news this way. If you’re following a bunch of Twitterers and three or four of them cover live events at the same time, you’d have to scroll through dozens of news posts before getting to the other people you’re following.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Sholin. He did an awesome job covering the conference given Twitter’s constraints. But I think those constraints may limit the effectiveness of this kind of coverage — just as they may limit the effectiveness of disaster-news delivery and general breaking news.

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One response to “The limits of Twitter’s 140-character limit

  1. We recently built an app for sports that twittered out Buccaneers updates during the NFL draft. While the 140-character limit can be annoying, it’s certainly important for at least one reason: a longer limit would ruin Twitter’s platform-agnostic philosophy.

    The good/bad about Twitter is that I can post information from nearly any form (email, IM, SMS message, toaster) and receive it in the same fashion. 140 characters is perfect for an SMS message or an IM conversation; anything longer would artificially restrict twitter-tweeters to one or two longer formats (RSS and the Web).

    In short, Twitter is good because it’s short. This comment would be impenetrable on a mobile phone or as an IM — and that’s what makes it genius.