Twitter on Tuesday announced a set of changes that will make the Twitter essay, also known as the tweetstorm or thread, a core feature rather than a workaround.
In recent years, prolific tweeters have thumbed their noses at the 140-character limit (now a 280-character limit) by creating “threads” comprising a series of replies to their own tweet. The result has been the rise of a new form, albeit one that occupies a rather small niche in the media landscape: the tweetstorm. For example:
THREAD: Did you know this day is a mammoth one in African-American history? A date that has exposed two Americas. https://t.co/baZCYhEXdJ— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 28, 2017
It’s a neat trick but one that takes some forethought and know-how—and can easily go awry in various ways. It’s also hard to know sometimes when a given tweet is meant to stand on its own and when it’s really just the introduction to a series that is meant to be consumed as a whole. Nonetheless, the tweetstorm has become a staple of the platform, allowing people to make the sort of nuanced arguments that Twitter’s famous character limit would otherwise seem to preclude. People often point to a tweetstorm they want to highlight by quote-tweeting it and adding the word thread or perhaps this or read the whole thing.
Twitter has a long tradition of changing its product to accommodate the creative new ways that people are using it. Now it’s doing that again by adding features that encourage self-reply chains and make it possible to publish such a thread all at once, rather than one tweet at a time.
The company announced the changes at 1 p.m. on Tuesday in a blog post titled, “Nice Threads.” The window where you compose a tweet now includes a plus sign at the bottom right. Tap or click it, and a second 280-character composition frame will appear below the first one. That means you can compose a tweetstorm on Twitter itself and get it all set to go before publishing the whole thing simultaneously with a new “tweet all” button. You can see a GIF of the new feature below:
A related change makes it easier to add to an already published tweet or thread, which used to require hitting the “reply” button. Now when you open one of your own tweets, a composition window appears below it with the prompt, “Add another tweet.”
Finally, threads that others have published will now be more clearly marked, appearing in your feed with an option to “show thread.”
The new functionality isn’t perfect. While it makes it easier than before to compose an essay, that’s still much trickier to do on Twitter than it is in a word processor or even on Facebook. Not only does the essay still have to come in chunks of 280 characters or less—any of which might be read or quoted out of context by others—but writing it that way means that you can’t substantially edit or add to the top of your essay without messing up everything that comes after it. The all-at-once tweetstorm also removes one of the unique virtues of the form, which New Republic editor Jeet Heer extolled in 2014: the ability to respond to feedback in near real time, as you write, and to let it influence the course of your published thoughts. The good news is that you can still tweetstorm the old way if you want to.
7. For me, the special virtues of the twitter essay are that 1) I'm thinking in real time and 2) I'm getting real time feedback.— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) November 4, 2014
On one level, this is a cosmetic change to a service that still has deep problems related to both usability and policing online speech. But it’s part of a more important, ongoing evolution in which Twitter is shifting from short, self-contained bursts of information to longer and more nuanced arguments, conversations, and commentary.
Between this and the new, higher character limit, Twitter is becoming a platform for essays and reflection in addition to breaking news, jokes, quips, and asides. To dismiss these sorts of subtle product changes as irrelevant to Twitter’s serious problems with abuse, harassment, and filter bubbles is to miss the ways in which the platform’s original design and constraints helped to foster those problems in the first place.