10,000 Characters

How many words might that add up to? How many pages? How many minutes of reading would that entail?

Like many other Twitter users I have some feelings about the lifting of the 140 character limit and potentially expanding it to up to 10,000. I had and have feelings about the shift from favorites as stars to hearts indicating a “like.”

I read the articles and posts describing Twitter’s downfall, death, corruption and fight for survival because this is the social media space that best meets my needs so far. And every time I feel myself about to say something sentimental about how and why I “care” about Twitter, I slap myself upside the head and remind myself that like hundreds of other corporations this is one more that is aiming to generate shareholder profits via my ongoing display of “care”: filling their platform with thousands of data points per hour.

And so it was with great relief that I read an article which made plain for me exactly what is at stake with Twitter lifting its signature 140 character limit. Will Oremus argues convincingly that it’s not about the length of the tweet:

What’s really changing here, then, is not the length of the tweet. It’s where that link at the bottom takes you when you click on it—or, rather, where it doesn’t take you. Instead of funneling traffic to blogs, news sites, and other sites around the Web, the “read more” button will keep you playing in Twitter’s own garden.

After a while, you may notice that this garden has expanded to take in territory that once lay beyond its walls—and that those walls are a little higher than you remember them being. Stories published on Twitter may not be available elsewhere. At the same time, Twitter might start to exercise some control over which stories available elsewhere will be allowed inside its garden.

The title of his post: “Twitter Isn’t Raising the 140 Character Limit. It’s Becoming A Walled Garden” says so much. And what it revealed to me was how much corporations are vested in guiding consumers in the “best way” to enjoy a service or product. Brand loyalty is even more important than ever. Attracting an audience or following is one thing, but to keep your audience tethered to your platform/service/product long enough for them to receive adequate ‘experience enhancers’ in the form of specifically targeted advertising; that is fully another.

And seen that way, I can’t believe that I have fallen in so deeply with all of this. How many terms of use have I knowingly accepted without so much as glancing at the details of my unique surrender? How widely and generously have I distributed my cookies among countless third parties?

So if Twitter changes its character limit, I have essentially all the same choices I have every day. To stay or go. To feed the insatiable monster or reduce my offerings. In truth, I’ve already become quite comfortable in my little garden space. Some things have begun to take root and grow, even thrive on some days. I appreciate the many neighborly interactions with other gardeners. And the wealth of our conversations is generated by the fact that none of us live in our Twitter gardens. We all come and go, check in and check back out. We bring our experiences from elsewhere and re-examine them back in the garden.

 

And yet, this garden with walls or without, is hardly built for permanence, although we like to behave as if that were the case. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey was quoted in a USA Today article describing the company’s logic in contemplating the change:

Dorsey has pledged to challenge long-held beliefs and conventions at Twitter in an attempt to reignite user growth.

“I’ve challenged our teams to look beyond assumptions about what makes Twitter the best play to share what’s happening. I’m confident our ideas will result in the service that’s far easier to understand and much more powerful,” Dorsey said during the company’s third-quarter conference call.

What struck me here was the idea of “long-held beliefs and conventions” in a company that is just over 10 years old. “Long-held beliefs” move fast in Silicon Valley and therefore for the rest of us, too, apparently. And “reignit[ing] user growth” is every company’s headache. That upward growth curve simply can’t go on forever the way it started. But that seems very hard to accept if you made so much money (or amassed so much attention) for a while there. If Silicon Valley insists that 5-8 years is time enough to have established “long-held beliefs” then none of us should be surprised when these same corporations begin to speak of “glory days” after 15 years in the market.

Understanding why companies do the things they do with us and supposedly for us has to become an additional priority in our digital day-to-day.  This pains me. I would really rather not bother. But there is too much at stake. How much have I already shared and surrendered? What happens if rather than introducing higher walls, bulldozers arrive and the Twitter garden is made over into a giant strip mall?

This is why we need to keep our eyes open. If you catch me saying that I “care” about Twitter – remind me that Twitter does not care much about me. Twitter cares about Twitter’s survival which now is only measured in economic terms, suitable for Wall Street exchanges. 140 or 10,000 characters of expression will neither provide the cure nor seal the demise.

Someday we’ll look back and laugh.

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