Brevity is the soul of wit, especially on Twitter

Why The Economist is happy to stick with 140 characters on Twitter for now

Thanks to Max Pixel

The Economist is renowned for its devotion to brevity. For many years this meant that the one-line descriptions that appear at the top of our articles (called rubrics) made for perfect tweets. But now Twitter has doubled its character limit from 140 to 280. So like many publishers, we’ve been left wondering whether we should take advantage of the extra space.

The first thing to consider is our 174-year commitment to brevity. It is almost always clearer to be brief, as noted by no fewer than two of George Orwell’s six rules for writing, which frame our style book. Perhaps it was Orwell’s time spent as a newspaperman that helped inspire his pithy prose. His allergy to superfluous words and punctuation is echoed in our weekly style e-mails from Anton LaGuardia, The Economist’s deputy foreign editor. In a recent e-mail, Anton’s short sentences gently admonished colleagues for using colons to break up a long sentence or as a kind of confection:

“Avoid the excessive use of this device: the colon. It elicits a reaction from editors: pressing the delete button. The colon has its place, for instance in setting out a list. But it can become an affectation. Try the full stop. It is almost always better.”

Next, we on the social team had to ask ourselves if, and when, a paragraph-sized tweet is ever warranted. Journalists and publishers have been publicly grappling with that very question since the November rollout of the new 280-character limit. NPR’s morning podcast, Up First, has tried laying out the day’s news in a series of longish tweets within a thread. Stories, such as the ones below, are grouped by topics such as “the latest”, “politics” and “health news”.

Vox, meanwhile, has also used the extra characters to flesh out its meatier, more controversial threads, including one on the allegations of sexual harassment against Donald Trump.

Experimentation with new tools is an important part of a successful digital-media strategy. But Up First’s tweet in no way breaks with the status quo. A similar effect could have been achieved using a series of linked tweets. The longer format may make sense for daily-news giants that publish countless breaking stories each day, but it doesn’t quite fit with our focus on analysis.

Another way we could take advantage of the 280-character limit would be to provide more context for complex subjects. That in turn might help prevent the spread of disinformation that has so plagued online communities. But the reason disinformation thrives in social media is not because users do not have enough space. Instead, it is the way information is shared (quickly and without consequence), and who it is shared by. That cannot be remedied just by adding an extra 140 characters.

Others may argue that longer tweets give publishers the means to share original content in new ways. The Economist, for example, publishes short, newsy “chunks” in our Espresso app. But 280 characters is still not enough space to share even these paragraphs, and it is unlikely that subscription-based news organisations would warm to giving away their journalism for free on a third-party platform — even if it did fit.

Just because the option is there does not mean we are compelled to use it. Internal research done by our inimitable data analyst James Tozer has shown that the best-performing tweets are actually on the shorter side. James found that for our tweets, the optimal length is actually as short as 30–40 characters if you’re optimising for clicks. Brevity has been an integral part of The Economist’s brand since 1843. We pride ourselves on extending the voice and style of the newspaper across our digital products and social channels. We would be wise not to abandon that now.

As a result I, and the rest of the social team, are pretty happy not to make use of the full 280 characters per tweet. There is a time and place to wax eloquent. It is not on Twitter. Others were more explicit in their disappointment.

The extra space can be useful, perhaps especially for individuals, but I find myself solidly in the company of those journalists who mourn the end of the 140-character era. Crafting a coherent, nuanced, clever tweet was often an editing challenge in and of itself. With this change, Twitter appears to have relinquished its main selling point: brevity. (And Anton, if you’re reading this, please forgive the colon.)

Aryn Braun is a social media writer at The Economist