Why 140 characters is plenty

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monet_paintingA few posts ago Dave Winer continues his criticism of Twitter’s 140 character limit. Never mind that Dave aggressively supported cloning Twitter’s APIs and character limit in the Bearhug days when Twitter needed the support. Never mind that things have changed now and apparently Twitter is too big for our own good.

Dave’s back and forth is part of a grand old tradition, where new facts obviate old ones and alliances switch to account for new alignments. In Twitter’s case, the early instability and the high stakes involved made for a great deal of passion and attendant posturing. We all took it personally (well, I did) when Twitter removed key features that favored serendipity and discovery. Until then, we felt the new space Twitter opened up was like the Old West, expanding outward without sense of limit or control.

It wasn’t that Track was the most useful part of the service. It was more that it represented the horizon, the frontier, the lack of boundaries. Taking it away hardened the service into its fundamental structure, the familiar limits of space and time, the tenuous constructs of “friend” and “follow” rather than the surprise of the unfamiliar appearing suddenly with fresh ideas and humor. Before Track went away, we never knew what would happen next; afterward, we knew enough to not anticipate.

In a similar way, 140 characters felt less like a limitation and more like an invitation to be surprised at how much you could squeeze into the frame. Like perspective in a painting, or echo in a recording, the creative use of limitations helped us overcome gravity and imagine more than we could “see.” Supporting the limits became a creative validation of the surprise that Twitter has always been. How many events and ideas must we share before we get over that surprise, that once again Twitter has exceeded expectations?

140 characters brought us url shorteners, the key to this new self-compressing and auto-expanding universe. Our software is now compensating for the microURL opacity, unpacking these links and harvesting the metadata they carry to aid indexing of the gestures they contain. Once again, the apparent limitations of the shorteners (gas station on every corner, lurking potential runaway code, mom and pop businesses closing down and orphaning links) are creating investment opportunities and entrepreneurial enclaves.

It’s a little like the present wrapped in a series of enclosed boxes, where the joke of what’s in the big box is replaced by the joke of how small something can get before it is even more valuable. Twitter continues to confound the experts, even those who are getting rich with and around it. That’s because the real value of Twitter is the one thing that will remain secret — its ability to delight. It’s not for Ev or Biz or even Fred or Marc to own. It doesn’t matter what it’s called either.

In a way, it’s been a blessing that Track has remained locked away in the Tower. It’s given us continued license to dream of what could be when it inevitably returns. We watch as FriendFeed explores the realtime conversations Track first alerted us to. We note Facebook’s timorous steps with the Everyone button, today’s realtime chat alliance with uStream, the media musings about a Facebook Search that would produce higher value targeted results. We even see iPhone 3.0 search reach back from the device to Google servers for results. It’s all Track on the way back.

Will we still have dreams when Track returns? Yes, just like we will have dreams when 140 characters doesn’t go away. Is 140 characters enough room to say we need more? Well, then, we’re good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jesse_Stay/683545112 Jesse Stay

    Steve, you must have missed the news – Twitter has brought track back. It’s even called track: http://staynalive.com/articles/2009/06/21/track-is-back-steve-gillmor-rejoices/

    • http://www.kensheppardson.com Ken Sheppardson

      I’m not sure I’d consider a feature in alpha that’s only available to a hand-picked set of development partners “back”. I’ll consider it “back” when users can use it again.

  • Edward Coffey

    Why say in 3625 characters or more what can easily be said in 140?! Think what you meant to say was:

    Y 140chrs=enuf: @davewiner sez 140!=enuf but usd 2 say its gud. Twitr = like paintng, recrding, artficaly-imposd cnstrnt lead 2 grtr cr8ivty

    • Michael

      Awesome. Get @gillmorIn140 an keep shortening his stuff :)

  • Matthew Terenzio

    Eight track tape was eventually replaced by the inferior cassette due to advances in the quality of cassettes and their more convenient size.

    Track will be replaced (or become) an open standard and open market for gesture filtering.

    What I mean to say is that information is a commodity, but a good filter (formerly known as an editor) is not and the explosion of information that can and will be tracked requires such a filter.

    Convenience and quality rule, but this market is just at the beginnings of its creation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory_Martin/719131173 Gregory Martin

    I like your comment about Track, “It was more that it represented the horizon, the frontier, the lack of boundaries.” I’ve never had the chance to use this feature, but the concept of subscribing to text messages based on topics or search terms is alive in TipTop, which is currently using Twitter search APIs. For example, a search on TipTop for “Techcrunch” http://www.feeltiptop.com/techcrunch/ not only provides constantly live search and relevent results for all the Tips (positive messages) and Pits (comments with negative sentiment) related to the search terms, you can also filter the thousands of messages by related concepts and categories. TipTop is pushing the envelope in this respect.

    Greg Martin

  • http://twitter.com/wortspiel77 Jana

    url shorteners are much older than twitter.
    e.g. tinyurl was launched in 2002.

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