Saturday, April 4, 2009

Open Letter to Twitter

Talk about taking a niche startup (micro blogging) and blowing up into an industry phenomenon, one can't help but tip the cap at the founders' vision for Twitter. The beauty of their plan was not just the concept of micro blogging but, also, early adoption of cel phone tweets and rich availability of APIs enabling others to spread twitter content around the web. Twitter is now a communications appliance.

But every entrepreneur must tweak his tweets. The plan must evolve based upon changing market conditions and better understanding of user desires. The following is a humble suggestion that I believe is shared by many in the twittersphere. The first commandment of Twitter is "Thou shalt not tweet more than 140 characters". Awesome, should have been on the stone tablets God handed down to Moses. Just maybe the Twitter Gods should chisel an addendum to the first commandment: "Thou shalt not tweet more than 140 characters exclusive of URLs. Here is the problem, let's say I want to tweet about yesterday's Twitter story in BusinessWeek. Here is the URL: For those counting, that's 102 characters leaving me 38 for the content of my tweet. Quite constraining but at least I get six or seven words. What about URLs that are themselves more than 140? There is no way to tweet about that web page unless the creator possessed the divine wisdom with which to append TwitThis code to the page. One of the magic features of the TwitThis code is that no matter how long a URL may be, it condenses it down to 26 character if necessary to get under the 140 limit: i.e., when posting a tweet via a TwitThis link, the user always has 114 characters to work with.

Why isn't this convention followed in all twitter posts? Why does URL length so hamstring the tweet author? I can think of no good reason other than the Twitter Gods are busy (perhaps 'chatting' with Google). Suggestion 1: automatically crunk every URL inputted in a tweet down to 26 characters leaving the user at least 114 characters (as is already done with the TwitThis code). Suggestion 2: create a separate text input field below the input box that the the Tweet goes in to be used solely for URL linking. The tweet content goes in the text box and any URL the tweet refers to goes in a text box immediately below. The users gets 140 characters in the tweet box but any URL inputted in the field immediately below would not count against the limit. The tweet input format under option 2 would be akin to reddit. Suggestion 1 is the easiest to implement although from my personal perspective I like #2 better. But either solves the problem.

Signed @jjray

Update: In the comments here and at reddit, some posters attacked me for not mentioning the tinyurl option. I responded that it was stupid for a service as ubiquitous as twitter to require its users to navigate to another website for something so basic as compacting a URL's length. I argued that twitter should itself compact URLs for its users to help them better fit messages into the 140 character limit. Several tests confirm that twitter now compacts URLs under certain circumstances but not as well as tinyurl. It's a half measure.