Pitfalls And Perils Of Twitter’s 140-Character Barrier

Any Twitter user knows about the 140 character limit for a tweet. You only have so many characters to work with, which makes brevity essential. How many of you have composed a tweet only to see “-5” in red, indicating you ended up with 145 characters (five too many)? You have all these words you want to say! But it’s not going to happen. (That’s a 63-character headline, by the way.)

Back to work you go, shortening this and editing that, until—whew! You’re at or under the limit, and you launch your tweet into cyberspace. It’s tricky when you’re using a nice big keyboard at your desk and darn near impossible to edit tweets on a small form factor device like your phone (or your Apple Watch).

Invariably, you’ll get into trouble sooner or later, but according to a Lifehacker piece, some people think the small number of characters available makes them a better writer. The inherent Twitter communication concept is one of speed. You’re zipping along with a stream of consciousness thought, taptaptaptap on the phone, done. SEND. Oh, wait. I spelled that wrong—too late.

How did Twitter arrive at 140 characters? It wasn’t on a whim. Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey explained in the Los Angeles Times:

It was really SMS that inspired the further direction — the particular constraint of 140 characters was kind of borrowed. SMS allowed this other constraint, where most basic phones are limited to 160 characters before they split the messages. So in order to minimize the hassle and thinking around receiving a message, we wanted to make sure that we were not splitting any messages. So we took 20 characters for the user name, and left 140 for the content.

In 2016, Twitter did relax the 140-character limit just a bit. Media attachments, retweeting, and quoting tweets don’t eat into your 140-character budget. And if you DM (direct message) someone, those also don’t have a 140-character restriction. Twitter may go beyond that limit—they’re under pressure to grow the business and attract new users, but it remains to be seen whether a change to the character expectations will be a part of their long-term plan.

And of course, all this talk of 140 characters could easily bring up the debate of whether a tool like Twitter is even good for the English language, something we take rather seriously at Dictionary.com. That’s what Twitter is, a communications tool. We’re so connected in our little internet bubbles that we’re compressing nuances out of everyday language.

British actor Ralph Fiennes, a rather erudite fellow, feels like the Twitter-verse is “dumbing down” and “eroding” language. Rather than calling someone to ask how they are, one can simply fire off a “How r u feeling?” tweet. It gets the job done, but is there any emotional value there? Or do we even care if there’s any emotional value there at this point? If you feel like your life has become an endless series of 1’s and 0’s (binary code, natch) and the compression of thoughts and values fit to small form factor has become somewhat desensitizing after living with it for awhile, it might be time to take a deep, over 140 characters, breath.

But if you’re loving the 140 character world, more power to you. Create that new-age poetry and feel free to send us a tweet anytime you like. Moral of the story? When you need to, log off! If you don’t, don’t! Read a book or write a letter—online or off.

Here are some examples of tweets that weren’t ready for prime time, with a tip of the cap towards The Poke. A reminder: we all make mistakes (and sometimes they’re hilarious). As a courtesy to these generous tweeters, we’ve removed their names.

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