3 reasons Twitter moving to 280 characters won’t help journalists communicate more effectively (Or, “Filak-ism: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should)

(Once again proving that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it.)

Before I wrote my first book for SAGE, I sketched out a handful of “Rules of the Road” that had to apply to ALL journalism. That ratty piece of hotel stationary with fading black ink on it sits in front of me every day at work, a reminder of the core principles of what matters most in this field.

When Twitter announced the other day that it was taking a trial run at doubling its character limit, I hated it, specifically because it violated several of those “Rules,” specifically:

  • Right tool for the right job
  • Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should
  • Audience (and timeliness) matter most

In other words, Twitter could make it so tweets are 914,292 characters each, but that won’t make them any better or more helpful to readers, thus negating the value of the tool.

Here are three reasons why Twitter’s move to 280-character isn’t a great idea and/or why you should still shoot for that 140 limit:

  1. Noun-Verb-Object tells the best story: One of the biggest problems students have in transitioning from other forms of writing to media writing is learning to write tightly. One of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of strong sentence structure. In both books, we talk about the idea of starting with the noun-verb-object approach to a sentence and then building outward from that. Twitter, in its 140-character perfection, forces you to do that if you want to get your point across. When a sentence lacks a concrete noun or a vigorous verb, the writer must slather on adjectives and adverbs to get a point across. That makes for longer, weaker, lousier sentences.
  2. The Homeowner Theory on the Accumulation of Stuff: The more space you have, the more worthless crap you will accumulate.
    My first “grown-up job” had me moving 500 miles across the country and as such, they included a nice perk: A moving service. I packed everything in my studio apartment and had it ready for what I expected would be a full day of moving guys coming in and out of my place. The three movers walked in, looked around and started to laugh. “Is this it?” My total accumulation of goods didn’t even cover the back wall of the truck.
    The next move was from a two-bedroom apartment to our first house. The house had a giant rec room, where I dreamily envisioned adding a pool table and giant entertainment center. At the time, however, all we had to put in there was the beige velour floral couch I bought off a guy’s dead aunt for $50. We put the couch in that room and started laughing uncontrollably. It was this tiny speck of furniture in this giant room. We eventually bought a sectional and a pool table.
    Each move meant a bigger place and more crap. No matter what we thought we were doing, we kept adding more and more stuff. Thus the point: If you have extra space, you’re going to fill it with a lot of stuff you probably don’t need. If you are like our friends who live in tiny big-city apartments, you know you need to maximize space and get rid of stuff you don’t really need.
    Its true of space in a home, time in your day and characters in your tweet. If you are limited to 140, you’ll make the most of it. If you get 280, you’ll fill that space as well. Eventually, 280 also will seem too small because you keep cramming extra stuff in there and you get used to the larger size. It’s like knowing you’re gaining weight and that it’s not good but instead of trying to exercise more, you just buy bigger pants.
  3. It fails to demonstrate audience centricity: Look at the explanations that people have offered for this switch to 280:

    The idea of extending the length of Twitter posts has been contentious internally, batted around among product groups that are trying to find ways to persuade people to use the service more frequently. At 328 million users, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to attract more people. Investors have grown nervous, as that slowing of user growth has affected the company’s revenue.

    “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” the company said.

    As a result, Twitter said, if rules around characters are loosened, English-speaking users — who tend to use more characters in tweets — will also hit character limits less frequently. That may, in turn, lead English-speaking users to post more regularly.

    So, in short, Twitter is looking at this as a way to get more people sending more tweets as part of a profit motive and people who got used to the 140 characters are essentially just “emotional” in their concerns. Notice what’s missing here: The focus on people who RECEIVE information on twitter, a.k.a. the audience.
    The value of any tool you use in media writing is how well it does in reaching your audience members and providing them relevant, useful and interesting information. Nothing about the increase of the characters focuses on how much better the tweets will be or how the audience will be best served. The reason? It won’t, primarily for the reasons outlined in Points 1 and 2.

In the end, this might be tilting against windmills and everything will be fine. However, keep in mind this is just a “test” of the new limit so if you get to play with it, don’t get too attached. After all, once you get used to 280, it’s going to be hard to fit into that 140-character space.


3 lessons I learned by examining my Twitter “followers” (Or why culling the herd is bad for the ego, but good for the soul)

I learned something incredibly important and potentially valuable for other social media users on Saturday night: Popularity as a social media practitioner can be an illusion and you really should check in on your audience fairly often.

By way of some backstory, when I was finishing up the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book, some folks in focus groups offered feedback that this would need a digital and social media presence. Thus, we launched the blog and tried to let people know that I’d be doing this as part of both of my “Dynamics” books. As for social media, the people recommended a strong Twitter presence, which I had, but it probably wasn’t going to helpful in selling books.

I was a pretty early adopter of Twitter (relatively speaking to the field and really for me, given that I still own a VCR) so I have been using it for almost a decade now. I built up a “following” of more than 500 people over the years and I had always managed to keep pretty good Klout scores (when that mattered) and the right ratio of followers to people I followed. Almost 7,000 tweets later, I really didn’t want to start all over again. However, given how far back I was tweeting (I can’t remember what I ate for lunch today, let alone what level of stupid crap I might have put on Twitter in 2009) and my general ability to fly into a Twitter rage when I felt the Indians or Cavs were getting screwed by the officials on any given day, it seemed like the smart thing to do.

I tweeted out to my followers about three months ago that I was shifting to my new handle and told people to follow me there. I did this a couple times and found that about 75 people either moved over or joined me at the new handle. I was wondering how and why I didn’t have more support from those other folks. I found a suggestion online to remedy this: Pull up each follower, determine that follower’s value and then send off a personal direct message to that person, asking him or her to shift over. Then, do one final “Closing Time” tweet and shut off the old account.

In my “direct message” adventure, I found out a few things that might be helpful to you as you analyze your true social media reach and determine how best to serve your audience. A working knowledge of “Dazed and Confused” could be helpful here…

  • FILTERS DON’T CATCH EVERYTHING: I have some pretty good filters on my social media accounts to avoid the viruses and spammers, mainly because really smart people at the U helped me set them up. That said, I found at least a few things got through. A couple accounts for “Free” whatevers were in there, although my favorite was from the account of a woman, who posted a picture where she appeared to be in her 20s. She was leaning against a white wall and had her finger seductively pulling down the middle of her blouse to reveal cleavage, and her bio noted that she was lonely and hoped I’d be in touch soon.

    To be fair to me, I think it says a lot about my own personal sense of self that when I saw that, I immediately went, “Yep. Spam.” As I know fully well nobody in their right mind a) sends something like that on Twitter and b) would ever think to send something like that to me in any way, shape or form. I am not a middle-aged, self-deluded Wooderson:

LESSON 1: You need to go through and hand-cull some of these spam accounts yourself as to avoid problems in the future as well as to have a better sense of who is really paying attention to you and why. Fellow journalists: Keep ’em. Guys from Jersey who swear they’re hot Swedish models in your area who are just dying to meet you: It’s probably not worth the risk. Block ’em.


  • AND YOU ARE…? : In flipping through the list of followers, I did have more than a few “Wooderson’s little black book” moments, as I had apparently picked up people I was following and they were following me and I had no idea who the heck they were:

    (C-Y-N-T-H-I-A? Yeah… Who are you again?)

    These were random people who I apparently met at various media conventions, or whose papers I critiqued or who were former colleagues for 10 minutes some place or… Heck, I don’t even know. What made it worse is that they had no real context clues on their biographies. When someone put “Journalist” in there at least I had a clue, or “Former EIC of Smithville Junior College Paper,” I could employ some deductive reasoning. However, your favorite Bible verse or random quote didn’t help me figure out if I should keep you or ignore you. (To be fair, my Twitter bio never changed in 10 years and it sucked: “If you follow me, you are not allowed to be offended. Opting in is an implicit admission of guilt.” Yes, you can say it. I sounded like a dipshit.)

    LESSON 2: Your audience might be full of people you really don’t know at all. That can make it harder for you to tailor a message for them. It’s a good idea to go through that list of people occasionally to see if you really have a message for these people or not. Obviously, you shouldn’t randomly block people, but consider the degree to which these people are valuable beyond your ability to count them. The goal of social media is to increase sharing and interactivity on topics of common interest. If that’s not your audience (or if you’re not hitting your audience because you don’t know them), you need to review your options. (Side note lesson: Use your bio to actually help other people know you and give a damn about you. It’ll help both of you. I will be updating mine shortly after I finish this post…)

  • DEAD WEIGHT, DEAD WEIGHT EVERYWHERE: I was amazed that so many of the people who followed me and who were in the “social media demographic” were basically nothing but a Twitter shell.  Several accounts hadn’t posted anything in years. One even noted: “I’m only creating this account because you made me.”


    Some accounts were from people who started them as projects before hashtagging became a more popular way to track tweets on a topic. Thus, I was being followed by a few journalism conventions from 2009 or so, and they obviously had very little to say. Some people had long ago left their gigs as media advisers or journalists and their accounts basically ran dry.

    LESSON 3: Chicago elections aside, the dead shouldn’t be adding to your account tallies. If you find people who aren’t active or who aren’t giving you value, feel free to thin the herd and make that audience a bit clearer and a bit more honest in terms of the people who are truly “following” you.

When all was said and done, the people I had to block or cut shrunk my number to about 450. When I got rid of the “I don’t know you” people, the number shrunk even more. Between the people who were already following me from the old account and the amount of people who responded to the DMs, I ended up with about 25 percent of my original audience.

I’ll be honest: The number of people following me gave me this false sense of popularity. Sure, it was only 500 people, so I wasn’t like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, but that number was still a lot higher than a lot of folks I knew. Having it shrink by almost 80 percent was kind of a kick in the ego. Still, I’m going to follow up on this about every six months or so to see who is following me, why they’re (likely) following me and if what I’m putting out there fits their needs.

And if you’d like to be part of that group, feel free to follow me on Twitter at DoctorOfPaper.

(And yes, I’ll probably follow you back… Hey, we all have an ego to feed. 🙂 )

Free Beer from Gov. Scott Walker! (or why social media isn’t a joke)

Social media is easy to use, adaptable to the needs of the users and can reach many people easily. This is why it has become a popular way for athletes, politicians, entertainers and journalists to reach out to the public. However, when you combine that simple, quick media publishing with a lack of journalistic education and virtually no editorial oversight, a lot of “not-so-good” things can happen. This is why I tell students every semester that if they have a Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or Facebook account, they are publishers in the eyes of the law and responsible for everything the disseminate.

In short, you’re playing with live ammo, so be careful.

The book includes the story of Justine Sacco, a PR official who lost her job and saw her life go into a tailspin after an ill-advised tweet about a trip to Africa. Other examples include MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, who lost his job as an analyst at ESPN after he posted comments regarding transgender issues and a teenager from Texas who was fired ON TWITTER for cursing about her job ON TWITTER.

In some cases, it’s not a career-ending situation when someone makes a snap-back comment on social media, but in the case of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, it could lead to a heck of a bar tab.

The governor was said to be perturbed about a WIRED story that accused him of having a boring Instagram account. In response, Walker sent a comeback to his haters:

Of course, the story went viral, with multiple media outlets picking it up. Many social media users have also hopped on the issue, calling Walker out for a free beer (and in some cases, a better beer). Walker then upped the ante by offering some cheese curds to go along with the tasty beverage.

Clearly, social media is not a legally binding contract in a situation like this, but it’s a pretty safe bet that the governor would probably like a mulligan on that post.

Lesson of the day: Once something gets out there on social media, you no longer control it, so think for more than a minute or two about what you’re going to post before you post it.

After all, you are playing with live ammo.