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June 20, 2017 / Jim Fenton

Twitter threads: wrong medium

Spool of threadSince Twitter’s inception, users have been bumping up against the 140-character limit on tweet length. With support for images in tweets came images of text blocks — pictures of media articles (OK), but also pictures of text written for the tweet, which misses the point of Twitter as a short-form medium. These images also defeat the ability to search for the text, which limits its distribution and the ability to find it again when you want to cite it.

Twitter has been relatively faithful to the 140-character limit. Early rumors that Twitter might offer a paid premium service allowing longer tweets has not materialized. They have budged a bit, however, by shortening URLs and hostnames (which of course is useful to Twitter as a way to collect analytics) and recently by allowing reply tweets not to count the Twitter handles of the user(s) being replied to in the character count.

The current fad is Twitter threads; most Twitter users have seen these. These usually start with “Thread” and a series of numbered tweets immediately following. These are often one sentence, or one idea, per tweet that fit together. Sometimes, but not always, these are arranged as a string of replies to the initial tweet, so that a reader can follow them by following the replies.

Some composers of threads create them skillfully: they put each idea in its own tweet and it reads like very short installments of a serial. There is value in this; it’s a way of organizing thoughts, keeping points concise, and so forth. Others just write something and break it up into <140 character chunks. There’s even an site (pork.io) that will do this for you. The result is a tweet thread that has to be read together to make any sense and doesn’t require any particular composition effort.

Regardless of the composition of the thread, they can be hard to use. Perhaps I’m using the wrong tools, but when I encounter a thread that looks interesting (usually as a result of a retweet of either the thread header or some tweet in the middle), I usually have to go find the account of the writer of the thread and scroll back through their tweets so I can see the entire thread. This requires considerable effort, and limits their audience to people having the patience and time to do this.

There’s a better answer: use a long-form medium like this (remember blogs?). Tweet a link to the post. It’s much easier to read, it’s easy to add pictures, links, and other media if desired, and is much easier to read. It also respects Twitter’s value as a short-form medium, by not requiring one’s followers to scroll through a long tweet thread that they’re not interested in.

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