From 140 to 280: How Will Twitter’s Increased Character Count Impact Disaster Communications?
In a blog post from November 7, 2017, Twitter explained its expansion of maximum tweet length to 280 characters, citing increased ease of tweeting and higher engagement while maintaining Twitter’s characteristic brevity. Like many industries, emergency management frequently leverages social media platforms, like Twitter, to engage communities and deliver real-time information. Social media can also play a role in communication from those impacted by disasters, such as active threat events, like the Manchester Arena attack, and major hurricane events, like Harvey.
Within the emergency management field, what impact might Twitter’s change have on disaster communications?
Twitter’s Popularity in Emergency Management
Twitter is a natural choice for communications during emergencies and disasters. This preference boils down to two core principles: brevity and accessibility.
As one emergency manager put it: “After long days in a disaster zone the last thing an operations director wants to do is craft a grammatically correct five-paragraph essay. Twitter’s short text message like format is a quick and easy platform to communicate our situation on the ground to…the outside world.”
Launched in 2006 as a micro-messaging tool, Twitter has grown to be one of most significant communications platforms in the last century, giving a voice to anyone with an Internet connection. The brevity of its former 140 character limit fostered creativity and inventiveness, as well as encouraged sharing of only the most critical information during emergencies.
In a 2012 Department of Homeland Security report titled “Social Media Strategy,” Twitter is the only platform identified as serving all critical functions during disasters.
Source: DHS “Social Media Strategy” 2012
In fact, hashtags – which are instrumental in identifying trending topics and grouping related discussions – were originally born on Twitter in 2007, and the functionality has since been replicated on other social media platforms.
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— Chris Messina (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
Hashtags have become so prevalent in modern communication that organizations like FEMA’s Ready.gov have created suggested hashtags for emergency events and sample digital toolkits.
Twitter has become aware of the role it plays in emergencies and has developed functionality to cater to this use case. Twitter alerts enable users to receive prioritized Tweets as native phone notifications from select public agencies and public safety organizations only during crisis situations. Another functionality, Lifeline, auto-subscribes users to local accounts (based on zip code) that upload important info during emergencies. (Currently, it seems Lifeline is only available in Japan). As Twitter product manager Jinen Kamdar discussed, “Since Twitter often becomes a de facto lifeline during crises everywhere, we hope to eventually expand this functionality to more locations around the world.”
Twitter is accessible through many forms, including web browsers, native mobile applications, and SMS messaging. The former 140 character limit was deliberately chosen in part to enable tweets to fit into the then-standard 160 character limit of SMS messages. Twitter’s most useful data is also accessible through its public APIs, including geographic information associated with Tweets, which is critical to post-disaster analysis. Creative developers have taken advantage of this accessibility to use the platform in unique and proactive ways.
Potential Impacts of Expanding to 280 Characters
Now that Twitter has expanded Tweets to 280 characters, what are the potential pros and cons of the change?
- More Content per Tweet – The most obvious benefit is the ability to put more content into messages. Besides having a longer message, this enables the inclusion of other rich media, such as photos, videos, and links, which can be invaluable in an emergency.
- Fewer Workarounds – Prior to the increase, users had developed a number of workarounds to get their message to fit. These included shorthand abbreviations, multi-tweets (i.e. Tweets spanning multiple messages with [1/4] appended), and simply omitting content. In a casual scenario, these limitations were minor inconveniences. During an emergency, abbreviations could cause miscommunication, and readers needed to pay attention to the order of multi-Tweet messages, since Tweets are not always presented in a chronological fashion.
- More Frequent Tweeting – Based on Twitter’s research, users are more likely to Tweet. The added space frees users from thinking about how to fit their message into the character limit, which makes it easier to send Tweets faster.
- Reduced SMS Compatibility – Moving beyond the standard 160 characters will limit the accessibility of Tweets. In areas where modern phones and networks are available, newer platforms automatically segment and re-build longer messages, but this is not the case where traditional SMS-based communications are still prevalent.
- Overthinking – There is a chance that users may spend too much time crafting a message, reducing the speed of information distribution.
- Increased Tweet Complexity – With longer Tweets comes more complex messages. In an emergency scenario, readers may find it more difficult to pull out critical information buried in Tweets that are twice as long.
Outside the emergency management realm, users have criticized Twitter for removing one of the unique aspects of the service, and the core issues faced by their business model remain. However, within emergency management, the outlook is more positive. With 2018’s Atlantic Hurricane Season already underway, this expanded character link could be critical for communicating emergency information more quickly and efficiently. Being able to Tweet with fewer workarounds, more quickly, with richer content, and on a platform that’s very popular in disaster scenarios, likely outweighs the drawbacks, and the longer Tweets should bolster the platform as the go-to source for timely updates during disasters.
Phil Dziedzic is a managing graphic designer based out of Hagerty’s Evanston headquarters. A Chicago native, Phil creates visual collateral for internal use and for client projects, including infographics, posters, advertisements, and digital interfaces. Phil is a hobbyist photographer and web developer and spends his fee time obsessing over smartphones and his cat, Wick. He holds a Master of Science from Northwestern University, where he studied Engineering Design.