15th November 2017
In urban planning, there is the concept of a “desire path”.
You’d probably be familiar with desire paths from local parks – they’re the worn-down dirt tracks that mark where people actually have been walking, as opposed to the neatly paved, official paths that sometimes don’t actually take the best or most direct route to destination.
Desire paths are a useful metaphor for designers. They show how users want to use something rather than how a designer thinks they should use something.
Longer text is one of Twitter’s desire paths. Users have almost always used a variety of methods to overcome the 140-character limit and publish longer text to enable statements, jokes, rants, manifestos and so on.
Since Twitter added images, screenshots of text are a particularly widespread solution, used by everyone from politicians to comedians.
Similarly, once Twitter added “threaded” tweets, people have used the format to write extended pieces broken up over multiple tweets.
There have also been other options, like services specifically designed to link out to longer text. (Is Twitlonger still a thing?)
These things indicate some desire for a way to communicate at greater length than the standard, 140-character tweet (although threaded tweets have their own particular rhythm I’m not sure could be replaced). And indeed, Twitter has just rolled out an expanded tweet length of 280 characters, double the current length.
Plenty of people have pointed out that they would prefer Twitter to be focusing on other things: better policing of harassment and harassers, an edit function, addressing white nationalists, addressing the use of bots and sock-puppet accounts to sway the political process, and addressing the growing use of the platform as a replacement for more considered diplomatic channels.
I agree that these are all more urgent issues for the company but I still want to address the design of the length change – is this really the best way to give users access to longer text? I’m not a designer but I don’t think so.
It’s specifically the text-as-an-image phenomenon that makes me think there could be a better way to give users access to longer text in tweets. Brevity is the core of Twitter’s format and I think there’s a better solution for giving people access to longer text that doesn’t sacrifice part of what made Twitter great.
So, here’s my pitch. Twitter already has a concept of adding additional things to tweets and a means to display summaries of these things and expand those summaries when clicked.
So why not make longer text another type of attachment, like a “note”?
This keeps the core of Twitter short and sweet and removes the need to screenshot text typed out in a notes app, or similar. Longer text goes into a note and then a summary is displayed using the existing Twitter card system.
The note can be expanded to read the entirety, much like expanding images of text works currently.
This would have a few technical benefits as well. Text stored as text can be indexed and searched properly while text stored as an image can’t be without additional steps. Normal text can also be copied and pasted, and could potentially be editable to remove errors as well.
There is a precedent for Twitter implementing these sort of features based on user behaviour. Hashtags weren’t initially an officially supported feature and only became so after people started using them to link tweets together into topics.
All of that said, Twitter’s blog posts on the topic suggest they are quite happy with their initial testing of the longer tweets, so I doubt anything like this will ever happen. They are more trying to address the people who have a message too long for one tweet but who can’t be bothered editing the message down or stringing it over two tweets – they don’t seem to be addressing the people putting up screenshots of 800-word statements.
It’s also possible that any such design feature would be ignored entirely and users would continue to happily walk down the desire path of screenshotting text.
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