Date: 2009-06-25 21:42:00
a proposal for twitter

Twitter seems to have taken on the role of global news delivery and meme transmission vector. At least that's what I understand; although I have a twitter account I post only rarely, and I don't seem to follow the kinds of people who are hooked into the global news delivery machine. Or perhaps I'm not very good at keeping up with the people I do follow. Anyway, that's not quite what this post is about.

A common pattern for twitter posts seems to be something like the following:

[@otheruserid] [short description] [url] [#hashtags]

The different components can of course appear in any order. I would like to draw your attention to the [url] part.

Since Twitter only permits posting 140 characters of text, one must be conservative or even stingy in the allocation of character count. With another user addressed (the @ syntax), and one or maybe two hashtags (the # syntax), a typical post might be left with 120 characters for the description and the URL. In order to leave room for more than a handful of words, the URL pretty much has to be shortened. There are a plethora of link shortening services available; one of them ( recently raised $2 million dollars in funding. Twitter even automatically shortens URLs that you paste into the little 140 character box (letting you go over the limit via paste but not typing). If you paste an URL that is too long, you automatically get a shortened link in your post (assuming that fits, I don't know what happens if it doesn't).

Lots has been written about the negative effects of shortening URLs. They're bad for the user experience (one must become proficient with copying and pasting URLs), they're bad for the network infrastructure (they route every associated click through a small number of redirectors), they're bad for usability (you never know just what is behind that innocent-looking link), and so on. There must be a better way.

What if twitter were to offer a separate entry field for a URL? This would move the URL out of the 140 character space for typing actual text, and obviate the need for link shortening entirely. Twitter's web interface could show something like: receives $2 million in funding

Other non-web twitter clients could show something similar. This presentation has several benefits:

Twitter probably won't consider this due to their determination to hang on to the simplicity of the single size-limited text entry box. Having two entry boxes on the main page would at least double the (perceived) complexity of using twitter. But wouldn't this be much nicer to use?

I have the impression that besides the simplicity of the user interface, they also want to create some silly SMS-like effect that you really can't use more than the arbitrary limit of 140 characters, period, for whatever philosophical/marketing/branding/etc reason.

Which reminds me: is Twitter ASCII-only, or Unicode? Is it a 140 character limit or a 140 byte limit? Not being a twitter user, I have no idea if one can twitter stuff like "Ĉu ĉi tio funkcias?" or "Słabo mówię po polsku".
I believe there was some SMS-related constraint that originally led to the 140 character restriction. But that doesn't seem to be relevant any longer. In fact, I heard that the twitter APIs allow messages up to something like 300 characters and everything still works end to end.

Twitter is fully Unicode-aware, and the limit on the web entry box is indeed 140 characters. A fun demonstration of this can be seen at the Twitter image encoding challenge, where some very impressive image compression transforms the Mona Lisa to strings of 140 Chinese characters.
As far as I can tell, the limit is 140 characters, and Unicode appears to work fine; see e.g.
as someone who receives (only a very few select) tweets via SMS and whose phone imposes a hard 160-character limit to SMS messages, it makes sense to me that they leave the size limit alone. it's actually funny--once in awhile i get a tweet spread across two text messages and it's pretty annoying, esp if the split happens mid-URL, which tends to be the case since people put URL's near the end (i usually only receive direct messages that way, which almost never have hashtags). i don't know what triggers the split--it shows up as one message in my web history and i've never counted characters but they don't seem >160. they may be >140 including the "direct message from X" part though.

i grant you that 99% of my usage is web based and doesn't matter, but i think a lot of folks play the game with just ancient non-web phones...
Perhaps I'm underestimating the SMS usecase for twitter. Certainly in that case, you would have a hard limit on the length of a message and if it's longer you get annoying splitting or truncation effects. On the other hand, if the URL were a separate field they could automatically split it into two messages if the combined message would be too long for just one. Actually, they could easily do that today if they wanted.
oh, the point i was actually trying to make is that some people pay per message and doubling the # of messages seems a pretty poor move for twitter in the race to keep customers. if that's a race they're participating in. i'm totally unsure of what their game plan is, frankly.

i can't imagine being on a pay-per-msg plan and using twitter from my phone at all, but then, i can't imagine doing a lot of the dumb shit that people do either...

i'm definitely pro-better-microblogging-systems though, whether it's fix-the-current or make-a-new-one. i think that much like livejournal, the community aspect of twitter will be nigh-impossible to reproduce and convince people to migrate en masse.
Here in New Zealand nobody pays to receive messages (or calls for that matter, it's all sender-pays), and in the US I was on a plan with free message reception, so I guess I'd forgotten that people actually pay to receive messages! Seems crazy, but whatever.

I heard about Posterous recently and it looks interesting. It's not quite microblogging, but their angle is simplicity and it really is simple to post stuff. All you need to know how to do is email. They do all kinds of sensible things on the receiving end, so if you send an email with commentary and a youtube link, they will automatically embed the youtube video in your post with the commentary.

Communities will change. We're in an era where technology is facilitating the exploration of new social structures. Humans have been struggling for thousands of years with the increasing rate of communication - from walking to horses to trains to analog wireless to digital and the vastly increasing bandwidth beyond that. Now that everybody on the planet can (in theory) communicate with anybody else instantly, the social structures that have been built keep crumbling down. They're just crumbling down faster than they used to.
You know, the 160 character limit for SMS was quite deliberate. I find it annoying that Twitter still sticks to 140, when that's known to be too short.
Greg Hewgill <>