With 280 characters, here are the Twitter tropes that may bite the dust

A new form of language and communication has evolved on Twitter over the last 11 years. How will it be affected now tweets have doubled in length?

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It’s official – Twitter has now rolled out 280-character tweets for the majority of its users, doubling the letter limit it has imposed for the last decade. Longer tweets are now flooding the social network, with many using the opportunity to crack jokes, share their opinions, and make nuanced points (just kidding on that last one).

Although 280-character tweets might be a sign of fine and mighty progress, plenty is being left behind. Over the last 11 years, new forms of language and communication have evolved on Twitter – many of which will now be redundant.

“I assume it will take a little time for Twitter to adapt, but I believe the kind of writing that became standard on Twitter – clipped, succinct, only one point per tweet – will fade out, replaced by fuller sentences and more points per tweet,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Tannen ponders whether the style of one of 2017’s most prolific tweeters will change. “Will Donald Trump’s habit of truncating sentences and reducing thoughts to single emotional expressions –‘Sad!’, ‘A disaster!’ – remain unchanged or will he, perhaps, add more of the same?”

Trump’s Twitter tactics aren’t the only things that might change – here are some of the now-vulnerable language and communication tropes that have developed thanks to Twitter’s 140 character limit.

The iPhone Notes drama

A succinct symbol of “shit has happened”, a screenshot of an iPhone Note has been a Twitter staple for years. When someone – usually a celebrity – has more to say than 140 characters will allow, they write a Note, screenshot it, and upload it to Twitter. It’s undeniable that this caused problems when it came to searching or copy-and-pasting celebrity statements, but as a form of communication it seemed personable and very human – far from the usual PR script.

Twitter ghost stories

Over recent months, creatives have been taking to Twitter to tell staccato, suspenseful ghost stories on the site. One of the most famous of these threads was created by illustrator Manuel Bartual, who told the story of meeting his eerie double, the “other Manuel”, while on holiday. Despite the fact his story was crafted around the suspenseful power of 140 characters, Bartual tells me he isn’t worried about the new 280.

“I think the 280 character Twitter version brings a lot of new possibilities,” he says. “The trick is to think about it as an option, not as an obligation… 280 characters brings you the possibility to write with other rhythms.”

Folk/Fuck

My colleague Stephen Bush points out that many unfashionable words have come back into favour due to the need to be succinct on Twitter. Instead of “people”, for example, he has taken to writing “folk” – and has seen others on the site do the same. Research in 2014 also found that “fuck” is the most commonly used swear word on the site, presumably because of its short and sweet four letters.  

The versatile em dash

A full stop and a space takes up two whole characters on Twitter, making many users reluctant to start and end new sentences. Instead, a cheeky “–” without spaces allowed a user to string two sentences together, using one character instead of two.

Ironic hashtags

Freelance journalist Kate Pasola wrote her undergraduate linguistics dissertation on the use of hashtags on Twitter. She found that thanks to 140 characters, hashtags were often necessary for context – but this later evolved, with hashtags being used in non-limited character environments like Facebook and real life. Why? In Pasola’s words, because “we’re all sarcastic bastards”. She found people used hashtags ironically and satirically to create humour even when they weren’t necessary.

“Hashtags went from wanting to group data and make it searchable to being a small space to add lols to stuff and seem irreverent” she says.

Misspellings and a lack of punctuation

As I wrote last October, a new form of humour has developed on Twitter, where the omission of punctuation and capital letters psychologically makes a tweet appear funnier. It’s hard to see how this stylistic choice wasn’t born out of a need for brevity, although now it’s been established, this type of humour may well carry on.

Breaking news

While studying journalism at De Montfort university, writer Alice Gibbs was taught how to construct 140 character tweets that would deliver news effectively and accurately. “That took real practice and skill and actually, I believe that only some of the best journalists can do it effectively,” she says.

“Twitter’s move to 280 negates the need for a skill that is so important in the news world – being able to self-edit to be clear and concise... I hope from a journalistic point of view, we can try and stick to 140 for important stories and quick fire news.”

Script jokes

Traditionally, there was no room on Twitter to properly relay a conversation or exchange, meaning people started to do so in a script format. This created a whole new genre of humour. My colleague Anna Leszkiewicz gives the example of the classic “a man walks into a doctors” joke. Instead of relaying it in full (“a man walks into a doctors and says I feel like a pair of curtains, the doctor says bla bla bla”) you’d get something like:

Me: I feel like a pair of curtains

Doctor: Pull urself together man

THREAD

The most famous of all Twitter tropes is the old “THREAD”, born of our recent decline into A World Of Chaos. Twitter users who want or need to share developed, nuanced opinions on the issues (the many, many issues) in today’s world would thread together 5, 10, or 20 tweets to make a larger point. Optimists might note that the introduction of 280 characters will mean shorter Twitter threads, but no. Because people – they are bad. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh