Ode to 140 characters
Anakin, you’re breaking my heart! You’re going down a path I cannot follow! -Padme Amidala, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
It was perfect because of its frustrating limitations. That’s what the folks who didn’t use the platform, and a good number of those who did, never understood. Twitter’s 140 character limit per tweet made the platform as magnificent, addicting, and worthwhile as it was. Not because of old Polonius’ advice but because you were working in a form. Twitter was a writing style unto itself, borne of technological restraint and evolving into the millennial's haiku. Jokes delivered with perfect byte sized delivery, stories told in stutter-step rhythm, the drip of live news information, the incendiary hot takes and their inevitable owns. All of them grew organically from the energizing anxiety of watching one’s character count dwindle down from that infinite 140 to the red negatives telling you you had failed. All that artistry will be lost, like tears in rain.
Yesterday Twitter announced plans to double its character limit per tweet to the dizzying height of 280. Already these essays have begun to appear in my timeline like martians doing a poor impression of the earthlings they see. The “small group” seems to be entirely random, including both my Australian-Jewish friend Na’ama and the official BoJack Horseman account. Here’s the latter sharing (most) of its end credits song.
According to CEO Jack Dorsey, a man who I am certain has never used the service he runs, 280 is an elegant way of “solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence!” Shortly after posting that double-decker tweet, other users showed him how to say the same thing in 140 beautiful characters.
What Dorsey and his team don’t understand about their own character limit is that Twitter works because its users were forced into a learning curve. Anyone can look at their earliest tweets or scroll through the president’s account and find ungainly monsters flopping uselessly against the screen. Those missives signify nothing and often run enjambed into another tweet and the beginning of some acidic thread. It’s entirely possible these garbage tweets make up the majority of the platform, just as bad poetry and uninspired novels make up the bulk of literature.
But when Twitter’s best users work with the platform’s limitations, pure gold bursts forth. Contextless yet comporting meaning. Concise. Incisive. Ethereal. Batshit crazy.
These are just a tiny slice of the tweets I remembered tonight as I thought about the inevitable death of this platform I hate and use compulsively at all hours of the day. (For an exhibition of other masterworks, check here.)
For all the Nazis, nuclear warmongering, out-and-out abuse that users of color, women, and trans folks have been lobbying for Jack and his small council of bots to change for do something about for years, it was twitter’s best feature, its defining appeal, its perfection that they have decided to assail. In the coming future of death threat novellas and unhinged conspiracy theories told in excruciating minutiae, we will long for when a little blue bird showed us the soul of wit.
Sayonara, aufwiedersehn, so long to the best editor we ever had. And flights of angels sing thee to th-