All Atwitter: A Few Characters Weigh in on 140 v. 280

In a week when a Facebook founder publicly questioned the ethics and wisdom of social media, Twitter doubled down (up?), taking its infamously tight character count from 140 to 280.

Time will tell if the increased length of tweets leads to more consumer hours spent on Twitter, and what that might mean for the nation and the world. It's only been a week.

In the meantime, a few bullets of context, perspective and mathematical musings:

"My quick take on doubling the Twitter character count to 280 is... what a historical tragedy! It utterly erases an aspect of Twitter's origins that most don't even know. Where did the original 140-character count come from? At first that answer looks easy: Tweets were designed to be sent as text messages. SMS messages had a limit of 160 characters. So, Twitter uses 140 characters, reserving the extra 20 characters for metadata. But here's the real question: Where did the 160 limit of SMS messages come from? Surprisingly, there was nothing technological about it. Rather, one of the creators of SMS, a German researcher named Friedhelm Hillebrand, studied stacks of postcards he had received and determined that most of the messages scrawled on them had around 160 characters...."
–Mark Sample, Associate Professor of Digital Studies

"Blaise Pascal would have appreciated the freedom to create longer tweets. In 1657, he observed in a letter, ‘I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.'"
–Doug Locke, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science

"280 is what's known as an octagonal number–it can be represented visually as nested stop signs. 140 is not one of those numbers."
–Donna Molinek, Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science

"So, Twitter doubled. If Twitter did it again, we'd get 560 characters. If they did it 20 more times, you could post a tweet approximately the length of War and Peace!"
–Tim Chartier, Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science

"Well, what if Twitter halved the number of characters? And then that got halved and halved again and again and again, ad infinitum? In the end (pun intended), if you added all of those messages up, you would get a Twitter message equal to the length of the original message."
–Tim Gfroerer, Professor of Physics

"The primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service."
–164 curated characters from Davidson College Statement of Purpose

John Syme


  • November 13, 2017