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What Made Twitter Great

For me, what made Twitter great was that the content was brief, text-based, and curated.

I’ve been a Twitter user for a long time, since 2008 according to my profile page. To give you a since of how long that is, when I signed up for Twitter they were still sending tweets to your phone as text messages.

That’s the reason they were limited to 140 characters. The SMS protocol was limited to 160 characters. Tweets were limited to 140 characters to save room for things like opt-out instructions.

I quickly gave up sending tweets go to my phone. SMS messages are disruptive. They demand immediate attention and nothing from Twitter needed or deserved that. But the 140 character limit was transformative.

As a reader, the 140 character limit was a savior. On Twitter writers were concise. They had to be. That conciseness was a gift. I was going to get their message and I was going to get it quickly in return for very little time and effort.

I did and still do use an RSS reader to subscribe to websites, but the promise of brevity made it possible for me to be far freer with the feeds I followed on Twitter than over RSS.1

As a writer, the 140 character limit was possibly the greatest artistic constraint I have ever engaged with. It forced me to eliminate fluff, to get to the heart and soul of what I was trying to say. I could not couch my messages in equivocations or soften my statements with qualifiers. Concision forced me to be exact and precise. Tone had to be filled in like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; there was no room for extraneous words to carry it.

To this day, I still work to limit my tweets to 140 characters excluding links and attributions. And it is still my favorite and most fruitful writing exercise.

Twitter was text-based. It didn’t have photos or videos when it started and even today it still prioritizes text over photos and video. Compare that to Instagram where every post has a photo or video, often with audio. If there is text attached, it is very small and truncated so you can’t read more than a short section without tapping through a very small target.

I absorb text faster than images and video and enjoy it more. I prefer a text-based medium.

On Twitter, I could curate my feed. Every other social media site centered an algorithmic feed. These systems use machine learning algorithms to identify what is most engaging and show you more of that. This has the benefit of boosting their usage and advertising revenue, but as a byproduct it also boosts extremism, outrage porn, and worse.

Twitter has an algorithmic feed too, it’s labeled “For you.” There was a time when Twitter would regularly change your default to that. It annoyed me, but I was always able to change it back.

I don’t want to be fed a toxic sludge of content that boosts a social media’s revenue and KPI’s at the expense of my mental health.2 With Twitter I didn’t have to do that. I could stay on the “Following” page and see only content from feeds that I have chosen.

Twitter was a place I could go for brief, text-based, curated content. That was a wonderful experience and I will miss it when it’s gone.

  1. This didn’t always work out. I love the writing of Kevin Smith and was ebullient when I discovered he was not only on Twitter but a prolific contributor. I really enjoyed his writing there, but he was not constrained by by the format. He was too prolific for me and it didn’t take long before I had to unfollow him. 

  2. I go into more depth on what causes these problem in Why Followers Forever Will Never Be Free and more broadly in The AI Apocalypse Started Decades Ago