LAST Tuesday Twitter announced that a select group of users would be able to send 280-character tweets—double the platform’s signature 140-character limit. It’s part of an experiment testing whether longer character limits would be better for everyone. The company explained that, in languages where a single character carries more meaning—Chinese, Japanese and Korean—they see “more people tweeting—which is awesome!”
If lifting some of the character constraints gets more people to tweet in English and other languages for which the shorter limit feels confining, it would indeed be awesome for Twitter. But it would be even better for America.
The benefits to the company are obvious. Twitter has 328 million monthly active users globally. By contrast, Facebook has more than 2 billion. And as Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide explained in July, Twitter “doesn’t turn a profit under any conventional meaning of the word”. The company’s revenue in this year’s second quarter was almost 5 percent less than in 2016. More users would, of course, mean more ad revenue for the company, and could put it on a path toward profitability.
But more Twitter users could also be a boon for the country, because it could encourage broader participation and more civility in political debates. Yes, civility. Currently, Twitter is a tool used most heavily by the elite. Twenty-nine percent of Americans with college degrees use the platform, compared with 20 percent of Americans who have high-school degrees or less, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. The study also found that 30 percent of Americans who make more than $75,000 use the platform, compared with 23 percent of those earning less than $30,000.
If more Americans didn’t find Twitter limits so constraining and jumped into political debates on the platform, they might have more of an impact on public policy. A 2014 analysis by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern University found that the influence of the ordinary person on such decisions is “nonsignificant, near-zero”. The people who wield influence are the wealthy—the same people who use Twitter most.
The use of Twitter by more Americans could also make our discussions on the platform more civilized. In The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz explains that the people who are most engaged in politics are also the most extreme partisans. Currently, the 24 percent of Americans who use Twitter are likely the people most eager to share their views. No wonder our debates are so nasty. (Forty-one percent of Americans say they’ve been harassed online, according to a 2017 Pew study).
But, if the 79 percent of Americans who use Facebook were all also on Twitter—where people tend to communicate more with strangers —people with less extreme views would be part of the conversation. That could lead to some more productive—and polite—exchanges.
Of course, the beauty of the 140-character limit is that it forces people to state things succinctly. And expanding these limits changes the very essence of the brand Twitter has worked hard to build: the idea of communications around the length of text messages. But the value of tighter writing is outweighed by the social good of getting more people involved in discourse that is—literally—civil.
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