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Twitter’s big shakeup could improve tone, but its largest problems remain

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More characters may lead to better communication

Annual Allen And Co. Investors Meeting Draws CEO's And Business Leaders To Sun Valley, Idaho
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Twitter has announced that the character limit of its service will be doubled for a small group of users, a test to see if the new 280 character limit should be made available to all users of the service. There’s a possibility that this could improve the service for users in subtle ways, but that idea is buried under how many things Twitter should fix, but isn’t.

Twitter is a service that tends to make your life worse. That’s not meant to be snarky or hyperbolic; there are rarely times that your day will be made better by opening the Twitter app to check to see what’s going on in the world, and it can often leave you feeling worse.

Data seems to be back this up. Time Well Spent partnered with Moment to track how much time 200,000 iPhone users were spending on their apps, and whether they felt happiness or regret after doing so. The chart included in the post showed that users who spent more time on Twitter were less happy with their time than those who spent fewer minutes looking at tweets.

The danger of being overwhelmed by constant news updates and people complaining isn’t the only thing dragging Twitter down. Twitter’s biggest problems as a service and business are its lack of transparency and efficacy at combating targeted harassment along with its lack of tolerable options for monetization. User growth has been stagnant for awhile, and it may have stopped altogether.

The Twitter experience gets worse for users who gain popularity on the service, while the tools available to them to fight back aren’t keeping up. The more followers you have, the worse your experience is likely to become until your feed is just one long scrolling list of people asking you to choke them, daddy.

So how will adding more characters help with any of this?

If you can explain yourself a bit, if you have some room to breathe, maybe Twitter will cease to be a service in which people lob tiny bursts of emotion at each other. It’s unlikely, but possible.

Twitter has always seemed to be designed from the ground up to raise your anxiety and profit from abuse and “engagement.” If angry people yell, Twitter was very good at being a place to put all that yelling.

But now you’ll be able to speak. Not just yell, but say something with at least a little depth and substance. You have double the space to not just make an assertion or begin an argument, but to back it up in some way.

None of this will matter if Twitter doesn’t take its problem with actual, literal Nazis seriously, but it could mean a slight improvement in tone and effectiveness in communication between individuals.

This is a very optimistic read on a very strange move that would likely be very low on the list of priorities for anyone who uses the service regularly.

I’ve written about how abuse and incitement actually creates value for Twitter, at least in the short term, although no one thought the President would be the one using these tactics against other world leaders when that article was published back in 2014. The possible strategies for fighting abuse on the platform are many, although few are actually implemented.

A cynical person might argue that if people are arguing and hating each other, they’re at least using the service more often than if they were agreeing ... even if that behavior as real-world consequences.

And Twitter has facilitated positive communication and relationships. People use it to connect with other people they might not be able to reach any other way, and the immediacy of the platform along with its mature standing in technology are stronger advantages than any arbitrary character limit.

Being able to send messages of up to 280 characters could improve the service’s tone, and if that effect spreads across its network of users it could lead to an appreciable improvement in how we interact with the social network. That’s the mildest praise I can offer as Twitter has done so little to fight the actual issues that keep people from using or enjoying the service.

Twitter has to focus on its real problems if it wants to make using the platform something that makes people happy, rather than an effective way to spread pain, damage and regret.