After ten years of limiting its tweets to 140 characters (a limit imposed due to the limitations of old school SMS systems), Twitter decided it was time to experiment with the character limit and change it to 280 characters as a trial for some of its users. I am not sure why 280, but it is not going to keep me awake at night. Apparently it did get a lot of people hot-and-bothered. Like Dave Pell (of NextDraft):
…the reason Twitter thrived is because people were not intimidated by a big blank page that reminded them of the essays they dreaded during youth. Most people hate writing. Hence our societal move toward emojis and animated GIFs as a main mode of communication. 140 characters is so short that it doesn’t feel like writing. It certainly doesn’t feel like you need to be a writer to participate. 280 moves you away from “everyone can do it” and towards, “this is a great place for English majors.” And trust me, as an English major, that’s not a path that leads to an increased stock market valuation.
He wasn’t alone – Twitter was ablaze with dismissals of 280 characters. It left me scratching my head. What’s the big deal? I mean you don’t have to use 280 characters. Whether you are using 140 or 280 characters to be an idiot/genius/self-promotional/funny/angry, you are going to be an idiot/genius/self-promotional/funny/angry. Twitter thinks it has a good reason to experiment. And did so by rolling it out to a limited subset of its members. It’s not available for everyone — no, I am not on the list —I am really glad they are trying different things. Twitter in its past has been twiddling-my-thumbs company: thousands of employees, and scared shitless to do anything new and waiting. So it was a product that remained pretty much unchanged. And now that they are starting to experiment, they are getting a lot of stick for it.
Don’t get me wrong — there are so many challenges with Twitter — product challenges, financial challenges, growth challenges and more importantly deceny challenges. I personally would see the damn bots banished from the platform to make Twitter a more human and thus meaningful in the long run.
But none of these challenges are going to get fixed if they don’t change. Rather, more open to change and accepting of failure of things that come with change. Didn’t someone say that failure is an opportunity to start over? I am a huge fan of founders who try new things, learn from their mistakes and double down on their successes. Twitter has to embrace that culture and so should we as part of their community.
This brouhaha around Twitter’s 280-character mini-experiment is actually a good encapsulation of how despite often touting disruption, change and innovation, the Valley (aka technology establishment) is often resistant to change, dismissive of change and behaving much like the world it wants to disrupt.
Over past two decades of following this industry so closely, I can safely say that the disease called dogma is infecting more and more participants of this ecosystem. I could make a big list of dogmas and antiquarian beliefs, but I think the willingness to change is the hardest one. Whether it was dismissal of AngelList, BitCoin or other such edge behaviors, the industry which thrives on being contrarian has reverted to median when it comes to embracing change.
September 27, 2017, San Francisco