Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Twitter: Now With More Characters, Less Character

Twitter has changed a lot over the last few years, but until recently there was one inviolable rule to which all users were obliged: tweets must be limited to 140 characters or less. Because a computer "character" is a unit of information that roughly corresponds to a grapheme-- letter, number, punctuation mark, or whitespace-- the challenge of saying what one means in 140 characters or less is colossal.  So, Twitter users adapted their communications to their medium, producing a number of compressions, modifications, mutations, and (some would say) perversions of language that must be genuinely fascinating to linguists, curious and strange (but eminently useful) to the rest of us.

.The new changes that Twitter announced today are, basically, "workarounds" for the longstanding 140-characters-or-less limit.  Twitter says that it's still maintaining that rule, but their announced changes allow for at least two significant exemptions to what counts as "included" in that 140 count.  First, in both tweets and replies, @names will no longer count and, second, media attachments won't be counted as used characters.  As regular Twitter users know, both those exemptions make a huge difference.

I, for one, am sad to see these changes, The three great virtues of Twitter, to my mind, have always been (1) hashtags, (2) real-time access to developing news and events, and (3) the very unique character of wit and insight produced by the requirement to be concise.

A perfectly crafted tweet is a work of art. I've seen tweets that compress an essay-length's worth of thought into 140 characters. I've seen tweets that capture all of the hilarity of a moment within the same limits.  Tweets can be very crude and blunt instruments, so when someone wields them like a rapier or a scalpel, it is a marvel. For all of its other vices, it is the possibility of that rapier-like wit, that surgical precision of thought and expression, that are the most virtuous characteristics of Twitter.

Maybe it won't be that big of a deal.  I mean, people are only going to gain a handful of extra characters with these new changes... but, still, it feels like a step in the wrong direction. And so I will now add Twitter's changes to the list of Against The Spirit of The Game Rules that also includes Sudden Death Overtime and Designated Hitters.

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