I can almost picture the scene. It’s the late 1800s in Japan, and a group of learned men are gathered in earnest discussion about an art form that, since its advent a few years earlier, has been sweeping the nation. “I know the haiku has changed poetry for ever,” one of the elders would say, “but don’t you think that the rigid form of 17 syllables in three phrases is a little restrictive? Wouldn’t it be even more popular if it were more flexible, maybe 19 or even 21 syllables?” The suggestion is greeted with horror and disbelief. It wouldn’t be a haiku, the cry went up. And so: The haiku stayed with us/enduring, simple/a poem for all seasons. (See what I did there.)
We are at the same point in our own cultural history. The news has leaked that Twitter is thinking about abandoning the sacred principle on which this revolutionary form of communication was founded: that all tweets should be a maximum of 140 characters.
I believe that, in my lifetime, Twitter has been the most significant development in the way in which human beings connect with each other and learn about the wider world. I think it’s a misnomer to describe Twitter as a social medium. It’s much more than that: part news source, part force for popular movement, part monitor of social, political and cultural trends, and a global exchange of ideas, opinions and – of course – insults. It’s as close to the Forum of Roman times as we’ve ever invented.
At the heart of its appeal is the fact that, in keeping with the age of low-attention span, it demanded from all its users the discipline of keeping their tweets to a maximum of 140 characters. Originally, the length of tweets was circumscribed by the standard length of text messages, but what it did was to bring discipline and order, not to mention brevity, to people’s thoughts. Get to the point, why don’t you. I haven’t got the time or the patience to listen to your meandering argument.
As an editor by trade, I find the format of Twitter satisfactory and engaging, and it presents an interesting intellectual exercise, forcing one to shape thoughts or communicate information within a finite space. The downside, of course, is that this is done at the expense of nuance, subtlety and consideration, and this has – in the nine years or so since Twitter was invented – made fools of public figures, who haven’t quite appreciated the power of the written word to shock and upset. No place for irony in Twitter’s unforgiving world. But despite this, and notwithstanding the ease with which cyber bullies can go about their business, Twitter has undoubtedly enriched our lives, and has played the major role in democratising media.
And now, in a move that will put business imperatives ahead of cultural identity, Twitter reportedly wants to call time on the 140-character limit. Even though it has more than 300 million users worldwide, Twitter has recently been overtaken by Instagram, and in order to keep its shareholders happy, it has to keep on growing.
Only 40 per cent of those on Twitter are active tweeters, and it is thought that allowing tweets of any length would increase engagement. It is hard to sound like an old fart over something that’s only been around for less than a decade, but I’d like things to stay the way they are, please. Twitter’s an art form and what makes it special is having to communicate complex ideas, thoughts, even jokes in no more than 140 characters. (See what I did there, too?)Reuse content