Will the 280-character era make Twitter unreadable? A plea to keep the service scannable.

Keep Twitter Scannable! A Plea for the 280 Era.

Keep Twitter Scannable! A Plea for the 280 Era.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 10 2017 6:23 PM

Keep Twitter Scannable!

171110_TECH_280-Character-Minimalism

Lisa Larson-Walker

It’s been a few days since Twitter upped its character limit to 280, eliminating a feature that has defined the service since its founding, and so far reviews have been mixed. At Slate alone, Will Oremus declared it the right move, while Dan Kois and Greg Lavallee created a Chrome extension to circumvent it.

In rolling out the change, Twitter made the surprising contention that it doesn’t expect the new limit to substantially increase the length of most tweets: Its testing found that “people with the 280-character limit don’t actually tweet much longer, in most cases, than those confined to 140,” Oremus wrote. It’s true that there was an initial deluge of long-on-purpose tweets right out the gate as users tested the limits, literally, of the new character count. Hence a tweet from Law & Order: Special Victims’ account that included the entire opening narration to the show, because why the hell not, or one featuring an even-more-drawn-out-than-usual version of a famously drawn-out TV catchphrase. Also under the heading of innovative uses of the extra characters are the people who have turned Twitter into their own board game cupboards.

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Once that’s out of our collective system, though, what will happen to our day-in, day-out tweeting? Will the experience of reading Twitter be, after all this hand-wringing, more or less the same as ever, or will we have to adapt to this brave, new, and potentially chunkier landscape?

One common fear is still that, contra to Twitter’s prediction, the 280 era will bring a wave of reeeeeally long tweets: huge blocks of text, as far as the eye can see, floating through the service like icebergs. Well, as huge as blocks of text can be while still being fewer than 280 characters long—but when you add in the possibilities of threads and quote-tweeting, that’s pretty long, indeed. Under the 140-character regime, tweets were never more than a few lines long, and this kept the platform scannable: You could glance at a tweet and get the gist in a way that becomes harder when a line stretches into a paragraph.

Indeed, one of the ironies of Twitter is that even though it’s a text-based medium, no one seems to want to look at blocks of text while using it. This is not to say that people don’t want to read on Twitter (though maybe they don’t). It’s more about how our eyes process text. On the internet, as with anywhere, the length and shape of the text figures into our comprehension of it.

Maybe the secret to keeping Twitter readable is to reassert some of the physical characteristics that made the platform so pleasantly scannable. Aspiring screenwriters are told to make ample use of “white space” in their scripts. As how-to guide Crafty Screenwriting puts it, “White space is your friend.” It’s become such a mantra that it’s now a cliché that people push back against, but nevertheless, the point of the cult of white space is that choosing your words carefully, keeping them to a minimum, and surrounding them with space (like line breaks), makes them easier and faster to read.

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Some of that may be more about impressions than actual truth,

but impressions are

hard
to
shake.

How to put this into practice in your tweets? Hard returns. Use Shift+Enter liberally—you can still say more, but do us all the courtesy of breaking up your points with a little space. It’s easier on the eyes. Or take a lesson from NASA and surround your words with a little flourish.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.