Wednesday 17 March 2010

140 characters or less

The initial business plan must have seemed strange. “I’m going to build a system which allows people to communicate from all around the world, without restriction. Except that they will have no more than 140 characters to do it in”
When I first started using Twitter, I must confess I missed the point. I posted pointless updates about random annoyances, chatted to friends and used it as a way of asking my boyfriend what was for tea. Yes, in our house the man cooks. The woman owns her own hammer and screwdriver. We fight over who’s erecting the Ikea haul. Modern life.
Modern life, it turns out, can exist quite happily in 140 characters. I suddenly don’t need any more. It’s forced me to strip the irrelevant from my communications, teaching me, slowly but surely, the value of commas and sentence construction. As I accrued followers, I suddenly became aware of the potential annoyance factor of these little irrelevances and day to day tedium being thrown into a black hole for people to read. The focus switched. I became more restrained in the nature of my updates, trying to connect with people using hashtags, slowly realising the value of the individuals on the other end of the Twitter line.
Time passed. I still failed to quite see the point. Not that I wasn’t using Twitter, but I wasn’t using it to its full capability. I still chatted about pointless things, I didn’t search for interesting people to follow, I didn’t understand its point. It was a massively multiuser chat system of public conversations, and little more.
Then I went to a convention. A convention of geeks, in the main. I used the hashtag and through it found a community of others, also attending the convention, also commenting on their experiences and interactions. Some of those people I found through that hashtag are now becoming friends, people who I’ve connected with and who I can ask questions of and receive answers. The penny dropped.
140 characters is not a lot through which to get a sense of a person. It’s not a lot to portray yourself through, either. But the web is far bigger than Twitter, and so through links posted in my stream I can find out about live streaming of digital inclusion conferences, read about experienced professionals and their opinion of our digital infrastructure, discover other peoples social media strategies, take part in discussions through hashtags and learn from 1000’s of different people about the state of the world, right now. This second. Dynamic communication is finally here – public sharing of instant reactions, commentary and feedback. News is instant and available in a way it never was before.
So where am I now? What do I think the point of Twitter is now?
Connection. On a really fundamental level, Twitter connects people. People with the same interests, people with the same agendas, people studying the same courses, people asking the same questions, people fighting for the same cause. Twitter is about linking people, creating communities from nothing, breaching geographical restrictions and allowing us to finally share. You can still do nothing but post status updates in a manner similar to Facebook. That’s fine. But the level above that is a mass of information sharing, questioning, collaborating and connecting, and it’s value is immeasurable.
140 characters or less might finally be the restriction which removes all the other ones we’ve lived with for so long. Funny world, isn’t it.


  1. When we look at the communication successes of the past, we often find that ideas expand when space is actually limited. The 160 character limit of an SMS message has not stopped over 9billion texts being sent per month (source:, and the graffiti "artists" that decorate the spaces alongside the railways certainly look for for creative ways to use restricted space. Indeed, effective advertising is often about making the biggest impact for the smallest space, as space is usually associated with cost.

    Increasingly, we are seeing a permanent connection to the online world, and it's no longer the one way feed of information from corporate to the consumer. Even your satnav can share routes and traffic information between units, building a sense of community amongst "end users" (for major leaps in this area, take a look at Nokia's "terminal mode" project - ).

    Twitter has a 140 character limit, but history has shown us that such limits have ironically promoted communication. People have to be creative to make the best use of 140 characters, but thankfully, thinking creative is exactly what we want them to do.

  2. I don't feel Twitter connects me at a fundamental level at all. Twitter is just a transport medium.

    I don't necessarily feel more connected to people because of Twitter. If I wasn't connecting to people via it, I'd be connecting via Facebook, or via Mono, or via SMS. Whatever was most useful, in fact.

    Twitter's main advantage - and the reason I use it more often - is indeed its message character limit. But it's a more basic limitation that really makes it useful - it's just short text messages.

    Facebook, on first glance, should be more useful. Photo galleries, apps, walls, groups, it has it all.

    Which is why when I do log in to Facebook at the end of the day (an increasingly rare thing, btw), I'm bombarded by a new set of crappy applications, group memberships I couldn't care about, and so forth. All of which I have to then hide (if possible) or filter out manually as I read it. It's crap. And it's made crap by being all things to all people. It's the 80/20 rule of usage, writ large into communications software.

    Whereas Twitter just sends messages. Like a huge public broadcast SMS infrastructure. And that's what makes it useful - that and the fact that it preserves the messages (unlike SMS), allows them to be searched, and allows you to alert specific people via a simple mechanism.

    And then the killer fact is that an API allows this to happen with a huge multitude of clients, on different devices, easily.

    But it's still just a utility. In the same sense that my phone service is a utility. It doesn't make connections for me.

    I'll talk to just about anyone. I think that's probably fairly well known by my friends.

    I make connections with people. I make them through different mediums, but changing the technology doesn't change the fact that when I make a connection with someone else, it's made by the people involved, not the medium. The medium could be Mono, the bar at the SMWS, or a delayed train.
    (Yes, I've connected with people because of delayed trains.)

    Twitter may make it a tad easier to find people because of hashtags. But I'm not the kind of person that would check his phone when instead I could strike up conversation. Especially when it's obvious we're all there for the same sorts of reasons...

    That doesn't mean that your experience is in some way invalid. Or that you were doing anything wrong. Just that we're using technology in very different ways, because we're very different people.

    Different enough that you're using the word "fundamental" when it wouldn't even occur to me to do so. "Handy", yes. "Essential", well, not yet - but ask me in two years.

    When we can get the protocol to federate across multiple providers, it'll be a candidate for a true utility. Then it may be fundamental. But until then, it's just a useful tool for me.