For as long as Twitter has existed, it has been a place of brevity, if not levity. The 140 character limit—originally created so that tweets could fit into single SMS messages—is as much a part of the brand as the silhouetted bird. You want to yell about the NFL, hurl some insults at the president, or debate the parentage of Kylie Jenner’s unborn child? Fine. Just make it quick.
It's impossible to express a nuanced opinion about politics or fit all of the details about your wild weekend in Florida into just a few dozen words. That's the whole point; that's what Twitter is. But from Twitter’s perspective, those constraints present a problem: When people can’t cram their thought into 140 characters, they simply don’t tweet—bad news for a social media platform struggling with a stagnant user base and dwindling use. So what do you do to encourage people to stay on Twitter rather than spilling their thoughts elsewhere? You give them more space.
Starting today, the platform will let a small group of beta testers experiment with a 280 character limit, doubling what can fit into a single tweet.
Twitter says it made the move primarily for parity in language. “Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people tweeting in English, but it is not for those tweeting in Japanese,” says Aliza Rosen, a product manager at Twitter, in a blog post. In Japanese, only 0.4% of tweets reach the character limit, compared to 9% in English. From Twitter's vantage point, that suggests that the platform works better for those tweeting in Japanese than in English, and in similar languages. “When people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people tweeting,” says Rosen.
This will be the first time that Twitter directly increases the character count on tweets, but it follows a string of subtle changes to maximize the amount of content users can stuff inside a single tweet. For years, the company has been stretching the limits of individual tweets. The timeline, in (of course) brief:
2006: Twitter debuts as a platform for sending short updates to a network of friends through text messages—sort of like a precursor to GroupMe. Since SMS messages could fit 160 characters, Twitter capped each tweet at 140 characters, leaving a little room to fit usernames. Back then, it wasn't even called Twitter—just Twttr—and most tweets were just a few words long. That year, one tech writer described an average tweet as being along the lines of "hungry" or "cleaning my apartment."
2009: Twitter introduces the retweet function, so you can add to your own thoughts by sharing others. It didn't change the amount of space per tweet, but it did make it easier to amplify content.
2011: A new link shortener on Twitter reduces any given URL in a tweet to 19 characters. The same year, TweetDeck, a third-party service for managing tweets, creates Deck.ly, which bypasses the 140 character limit by creating a special page to display messages of any length. Twitter acquires TweetDeck a year later and kills Deck.ly. RIP, Deck.ly.
2012: Tweets with links now include content previews, images, and videos. Now, users can see a preview from an external site before clicking on a tweeted link.
2013: The platform replaces its previous link shortener—except the new one renders a link in 22 characters instead of 19, leaving a mere 118 characters for commentary!
2015: Twitter nixes the 140 character count in direct messages, replacing it with a 10,000 character limit. "While Twitter is largely a public experience, Direct Messages let you have private conversations about the memes, news, movements, and events that unfold on Twitter," the company writes in a blog post. Tweets, though, remain capped at 140 characters.
2016: Rumors spread that Twitter plans to extend the 10,000 character limit to tweets as well, after co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted a screenshot about Twitter users tweeting screenshots. The rumor never pans out, but Twitter does begin to exclude photos, GIFs, polls, and quoted tweets from the 140-character count. This gives people more room to tweet—even if, in an election year, those tweets skew more incendiary than insightful. After all, giving the cesspool more square footage doesn't make it any cleaner.
2017:Along with a redesign, Twitter reformats tweet replies. Now, when you reply to someone's tweet, their username doesn't count toward the character limit.
All of which brings us to today! For now, Twitter says the 280-character count is very much an experiment, which will only apply to a small group of random users. Whether they give all Twitter users more space in the future remains to be seen.
Even still, the experiment seems like the latest in the evolution of what, exactly, Twitter is for. When the platform launched in 2006, Dorsey described it as a place for "short burst[s] of inconsequential information." Today, Twitter feels like a space for much more—a place to share GIFs, journalism, and one-liners, but also harassment, threats, and political opinions. Doubling the number of characters that fit into a single tweet won't change that. But in the future, more space could make Twitter a very different kind of platform, giving more space for both the best and worst things online to grow.
There is an injustice haunting exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. No one mentions it because no one has any clue how to solve it. Last week, however, a thought struck me. Let’s see what you think.
On Thursday, thousands of young people will log on to computers and find out their A-level grades. We already know that pupils from state schools will receive proportionately fewer top grades than those in private schools. But what most people don’t know is that a bit of the exams process that happens after pupils have received their grades makes the inequity just that tiny bit worse.
Exam grades are subject to appeal. If a school has enough cash, it can return a paper to be marked again. And tests completed by the exams watchdog, Ofqual, show that when examiners re‑mark they are more generous than they are first time around. The presumption is they know the stakes are higher and are subconsciously more cautious.
Hence, re-marking doesn’t just buy a second spin – it buys an easier ride.
The cost of exam appeals – about £50 each – puts schools off sending back too many. Money is returned if the score is changed, but if it’s not, the cash is gone. Hence, most schools are careful about which re-marks to allow. Parents and pupils have little say in the process: it is for schools to decide how many papers will be marked again.
Will students still be able to have their A-levels re-marked?
Private schools, with the ability to recoup the cost from parents via invoicing, are less affected by the cost barrier. They are more able to ask for re-marks – and they do.
Last year, 13% of exams taken at independent schools were re-marked, compared with 8% in the state sector. Some subjects differ widely. For example, one in five French exam papers sat at independent schools last year were re‑marked. In the state sector the figure was just one in 20.
In an attempt to limit the problem, Ofqual has ordered exam boards to re‑mark in a less generous way. It makes score changes less likely so, in theory, the £50 gamble is less worthwhile. But those with limited budgets are the most risk averse. As it stands, private schools – with the ability to gamble even at higher risk – are likely to continue piling in for appeals.
Ultimately, as long as exam appeals have a price attached to them, richer schools will always have an advantage.
So, how to solve the problem? Here’s a possible solution.
The process needs to be entirely free to schools and students, but re-marking should be allowed only if an independent person agrees it is justified. Independent assessors – teachers or examiners working as self-employed consultants – would be asked by schools or pupils to check over papers. Only if the assessor is willing to sign it through to an exam board would it be re-marked. But here’s the twist: the assessor stumps up the initial £50. If their punt on a re-mark is wrong, they would lose out. But, if their hunch is correct, and the exam mark is changed, they would be paid, say, £150 by the exam body. A smart assessor, with good judgment and a quick eye, could make a tidy sum.
Exam boards will probably shriek at these payouts. But the current situation is unfair. At the moment, if schools make a wrong call, they lose £50. If exam boards are wrong, they just have to pay the £50 back. Sure, they re-mark the exam paper. But they should have got the job right in the first place. There needs to be a higher penalty than re-doing the job free of charge.
Practically, the independent assessment would be easy to arrange. Exam papers are already uploaded and marked online. From next summer, one of the largest exam boards, Pearson, will share marked exam papers with students on the morning of their results. These online papers could be opened so schools can forward them to independent exam checkers who scour papers flagged for review and send through those they were willing to bet on.
Examiners could then start re-marking immediately, speeding up the whole process. In 2014, students waited an average of 10 days to get the re-mark results. After that length of time university accommodation is often full and places are lost.
From the student and school’s perspective, this system has the benefit of being free. From a social justice perspective, it means everyone has the same access to a re-mark. From a cost perspective, it penalises the exam boards who mess up most.
It’s not perfect. There are kinks in the plan. But it would at least reduce the injustice we know exists yet dare not stare too hard at, lest it defeat us with its intractability. It’s got to be worth a pilot study at the very least.