The challenge of 280

When Twitter announced that they are expanding tweets to 280 characters, we all thought about this guy.

President Trump's Twitter Heading

With the trouble he’s caused with 140 characters, imagine what he’d do with 280!

For the rest of us who don’t have nuclear launch codes, what does the ability to create longer tweets mean? What do we gain when we can express more? And what do we lose?

Many things can’t be expressed in 140 or even 280 characters. Complex subjects, nuanced responses, detailed information, and well-defined arguments. Twitter is an unsuitable platform for this type of material. But Twitter fits the attention span of today’s audience. People want sound bites, memes, GIFs, and bold slogans. This is why President Trump has been able to succeed on Twitter while others have failed. He can deliver those attention-grabbing, easily digestible bursts his supporters crave. If you try to argue back with a well-reasoned 51-tweet thread, readers will stop following after the first tweet.

A 280-character limit gives us more room to provide more information in a single tweet. We can pack an extra argument, add a qualifier, make another appeal. We could add a link to an article with more information without having to give up a crucial phrase.

But a character limit gives us something valuable. It forces us to be brief.

It’s the same challenge as Table Topics: giving a complete and coherent answer in two minutes. We have to be concise and focused. We have to answer directly without filler and fluff. We must distill complex ideas into short sentences. We must understand our arguments well enough to express them easily and quickly to others. Through this discipline, we develop wit and the ability to connect with an audience.

In a time when audience’s time is limited, those who can make their points succinctly have an advantage over those who don’t. So, embrace limits. Use them to communicate with others directly and powerfully.