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Does Twitter’s 140 character limit improve writing or reading? July 29, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in twitter, UI.

Fred Wilson recently posted about the importance of SMS as a mobile interface, saying that in the debate between web apps and mobile apps on phones, you should not ignore the least common denominator, SMS.

I believe that Twitter’s native implementation of sms is an important part of its success. The 140 character limit was driven by the 160 character limit of sms and the initial design of the service put sms compatibility up there near or at the top of the system requirements. Other competitive services, including Facebook, are just not as natively available via sms the way Twitter is.

In general, I agree.

However, he also notes that:

Of course most people access Twitter and Facebook and other web services via mobile web interfaces and apps. I don’t know the current percentages but I think something less than 15 percent of Twitter updates are posted via sms. And the number of people following via sms is also relatively low.

I”m sure a lot more than 15% of Twitterers tweet some of the time via SMS,  so the 140 character limit has its benefits for making it easy to tweet. However, I think that there is another very important advantage to limiting tweets to 140 characters, and that is that it keeps the cost of spam down.

Many people have complained that Twitter is getting spammy, and that as a user follows more twitterers, they see a decrease in the signal-to-noise ratio in their feed. Obviously, it is always better to have a high ratio of signal-to-noise.

But if the “cost” of noise is low, then you can tolerate more noise. Twitter’s 140 character limit helps keep the “cost” of noise low; it is easy to scan the feed and skip over tweets that are not interesting to you. Since Twitter has few ways to filter the feed to minimize noise, short tweets are important to reading as well.


1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - July 29, 2009

I’m sorry, that’s too much to read. Can you summarize in 140 characters or less? 😉

That’s the one problem I have with Twitter and the size limit. Most of the topics I care about, especially business and game development, can’t be crammed into a message that short. The best you can do is post a shortened URL and a blurb of commentary. That’s not necessarily useful for me. This posting wouldn’t have been as interesting if it were a Twitter blurb.

Some people love Twitter and that’s great, but it’s not a replacement for every other form of communication. This seems obvious to some of us internet types, but given the way some people talk it’s not obvious to all.

2. amisare - July 29, 2009

Twitter’s 140 character limit is driven more by the limited attention span of internet users (of less than one minute, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1834682.stm) and the average reading speed (of Americans) of 250-300 wpm. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Words_per_minute)

3. golergka - July 30, 2009

Twitter is obviously not a replacement for emails, blogs and social networks – but it’s a useful addition. 140 limit is great for structuring your thoughts and thoughts – many great tweets from the people I follow could’ve been made to gigantic blog posts, but that would be, indeed, very much to read.

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5. Cindy Alvarez - July 30, 2009

Say the most important stuff first.

Twitter is great practice for this. Yes, most topics need more expounding upon and detail.

But I’d be thrilled if more people would START their emails with a “Twitter-sized” statement of what’s most important, THEN provide details. Would save tons of time in skimming and prioritizing.

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