If Twitter Offers You 280 Characters Just Say No


Were you one of the Twitter users granted extra linguistic real-estate in the past few weeks? Are you reveling in the new 280 character limit, or did you ignore the bonus and continue writing 140 character tweets?

Emotions were high after CEO Jack Dorsey announced the change on September 26. Some users were pleased but more were outraged. A few of them even seized on Dorsey's announcement itself to make their point: 

Explaining the new initiative, Dorsey cited differences in language character density around the world (Chinese and Korean often communicate the same idea in far fewer characters than English) and the original, but now irrelevant, technical constraints of the SMS messaging system. He further defended the change by noting that users had long been tweeting images of text to get around the 140 character limit.

It's hard to argue with any of these justifications, except that they overlook a hidden value of Twitter — that its original constraint provides a near-perfect workout for innovation and problem-solving. 

Artists have long understood that limitations, even arbitrary ones, foster creativity. A restriction of syllables and meter give us the condensed emotion of Haiku

the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

and Shakespeare's distinctive rhythm:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York; 
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths; 
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments; 
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, 
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
(Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1)

In art, the ailing Henri Matisse, on losing the ability to paint at his easel, turned to cutting shapes from paper. To Matisse's surprise, this necessary limitation released him to imagine forms, color combinations, and design that he had never thought of before. And in music, the strict rules of canon and fugue inspired Johann Sebastian Bach, in the final creative phase of his life, to compose some of his most daring and celebrated works.

Innovation in business can benefit equally from constraint. In their 2014 book "Frugal Innovation: How to Do More With Less," Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu argue for a new approach to innovation in Western countries. Frugal innovation (Jugaad in Hindi) models what people and companies in developing economies are good at — making the most of limited resources when bringing new products or services to the market. In the book and in Radjou's TED Talk the authors profile Western businesses that have found success by creating more, and better, with less:

  • Renault designed its Dacia line of cars for developing markets, but the appeal of its simplicity, reliability, and pricing model have made it one the lowest priced and most popular automobile brands in Western Europe.
  • Over the last ten years, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has transformed its R&D structure by focusing on smaller and simpler projects with a culture that limits bureaucracy and rewards direct communication.
  • Be-Bound has a frugal solution to the problem of global internet access. This silicon valley company supplies technology and applications that allow people on the most basic 2G cellular networks to get online and engage with the world.

It's usually easier to throw more resources (people, money, time) at a problem than to examine and re-examine the problem itself. The challenge to frugal innovation in the developed world is leveraging constraints when they are purely optional. But like any change of outlook or habit, the more you practice the better you get. That's where Twitter's character limit shines.

Every time you work to fit your message into 140 characters or less you train your brain to engage the challenge of distilling your message to its essence. Weighing the relative importance of words when composing a Tweet is practice for making the most of limitations in life and business.

Like a mantra, the repeated discipline of crafting a keen 140 character tweet, shouldn't be a burden, but a welcome reminder of what we can produce with the most limited resources. 

Less is more.

Published here on Forbes.com
October 31, 2017