280 Characters? I haven’t mastered 140!

Twitter plastic, Penelope Else, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

​Twitter announced this past week an experiment with the length of tweets, increasing the limit from 140 to 280 characters, and a storm of complaints erupted, 140 characters at a time. The responses got me thinking again about how I use Twitter, and how different that use seems to be from how others use it.

One Opinion writer on the New York Times Aparna Nancherla complained, in a clever Twitter-worthy title, that “Brevity is the Soul of Twit.” Nancherla argues that the short character limit forces self-editing, no long rants except in brief installments. And it creates clever maxims, like the authors’ own

I remember feeling wholly inadequate to Twitter, in its early days. I couldn’t be as clever as the authors of the tweets that were being retweeted. And, most of all, I couldn’t get the hang of the rules for this new tweet genre.

It seemed I was supposed to make up a clever hashtag, making it part of the joke. Or was I supposed to use a hashtag that others were using? What was I supposed to say on Twitter, if I wasn’t clever enough to make a great joke?

There seemed to be other options, but I couldn’t figure out what they were. I couldn’t figure out this new tweet genre.

My Twitter shame reached its peak when I visited a hip university to give an invited lecture and workshop. Before the talk, one of the professors asked for my Twitter handle so her undergraduate students could live tweet the talk. I gave it to her (AmyDevitt1, in case any of you are looking for me). In questions after the talk, one graduate student, after looking me up on Twitter, asked, “But where’s your presence?”

Oh the shame! Oh the humiliation!

At that point, I had never heard of live tweeting. I hadn’t known I needed a presence on Twitter as well as an account.

Oh the shame! Oh the humiliation!

That was three years ago now, long past the date when I should have figured it out, especially since I’d been on Twitter since 20011. Twitter started in 2006 and took off in 2007 with the folks hipper than me (it made a big splash at the South by Southwest festival that year, a festival I wish I was cool enough to attend).

My confusion about Twitter then came from lack of use, mostly. Indeed, I had no presence. But I was still trying to figure out how to use the Twitter platform, and I hadn’t been able to see the genres of Twitter that were emerging.

But oh how quickly things change. Today, I see different uses of Twitter that I’d call different genres of tweeting. And in those different genres, I’ve found places where I can have a presence, small though it might still be. And maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get the hang of it.

My list of Twitter genres is far from complete, but here’s a start:

The pithy, clever maxim

“Don’t maximize that maxim,” Nancherla urges. I’m still not good at that tweet genre, but I’m an appreciative audience.


Back in 2014, writers were already contributing to the second Twitter fiction festival, writing “twitterature” or “storyella.” It’s only gotten more interesting since, but it’s not the kind of writing I do.


Stars, celebrities, politicians, and celebrity wannabe’s tweet to gain followers and increase their audiences. What better public relations than to have millions anticipating your next tweet. I suppose this is my genre whenever I tweet about a new post on my blog or share my excitement about a friend’s accomplishments. I’ve been told we all need to be establishing our personal brand, so every tweet in some way may be PR.


Unfortunately, Twitter has become a place for people to attack those celebrities, bring down others, and generally spew hatred. So I’ve been told. But I have yet to find anything like that on my own Twitter account or from those I follow. Now that I say this, of course, I’ll probably become a troll target.


One of the best kinds of tweets for me is asking questions to quickly get answers and advice from the hivemind of others on Twitter who have experience with or knowledge about a topic. And I gather information by lurking as much as tweeting. Those I follow tweet about books, events, and ideas that I might not have known about otherwise. Or I learn about them first on Twitter, putting me a bit ahead of instead of always behind the curve. I can be more in the know. And the other night, when I heard late night sirens and helicopters, I used Twitter to learn about an awful shooting that had occurred downtown in the early morning hours.


Of course, I’m information-gathering from others who use Twitter to share what they know. I suppose sharing information is a form of PR, but some tweets appear to just want to share with others — offering a link to a reputable site for donating to Puerto Rico’s people, letting family and friends know you’re safe after a local incident, sharing an interesting article or blog.


Information sharing often happens through retweeting. I try to retweet the great posts others share. Maybe hitting the “like” heart should be a genre, too, but retweeting or quoting a tweet makes more of an impact. Retweet me if you like this one!


I don’t think it’s a single genre, but one of the most powerful uses of Twitter for me is connecting with others all over the world with shared interests, especially in areas I study.

Creating new connections comes from someone liking one of my tweets, and my discovering this new person who works in my area. Hit the Follow button and have a new source of information and ideas. The same when someone new Follows me — another new connection. Someone I follow retweets a tweet that introduces me to one of their connections — another new link in the network. All sources of information and connection.

No, I don’t think “following” someone is the same as talking to them at a conference or any kind of interaction f2f (face-to-face — see how hip I am [not]!). But some of my Twitter connections have come after I’ve met someone at a conference and been able to keep up with their work by following them on Twitter. And some of my Twitter connections have led to email exchanges about shared interests. (Yes, I’m still so unhip that I use email.)

And more

Of course, you’ll have noticed missing Twitter genres in my list. I’m sure I’ll think of others as soon as I publish this blog post — or as soon as I hop onto Twitter the next time.

You also probably noticed that I’ve left off the most (in)famous tweeter of the moment. The Real Donald Trump (not the President of the United States, who tweets as POTUS) is most known for his attack tweets (for which he is going straight to hell, according to another famous tweeter) and for his PR tweets. I’m sure he’s trying for the pithy clever tweet. And he probably sees himself as information-sharing. He seems to do his information-gathering elsewhere, unless Breitbart has a big twitter presence. Come to think of it, it surely does, but I’m not going to check for fear of attracting trolls.

So I’m getting the hang of it, a bit. I’m still confused about which hashtags to use when, and punctuation has more nuances than I realize, and my presence is still relatively limited. I’m never going to be a Lin Manuel Miranda or Samantha Bee.

But Twitter goes far beyond the clever maxim, even at 140 characters each. I imagine I’d enjoy an increase to 280 characters since I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to be pithy or to include just the right abbreviations and hashtags.

OTOH (On the other hand — ooh, look at hip me using old texting abbreviations!), I’m willing to bet that the 280-character tweet will develop new habits and expectations that I’ll struggle to learn.

And new 280-character genres will likely emerge that I won’t know and am not hip enough to help shape. So I’ll be back where I was three years ago — uncool again, confused about the Twittersphere genres, and struggling to have a presence.

But for today — If you’re on Twitter, watch for my info-sharing PR tweet announcing this new story, defining my brand, and increasing my presence. #genre #280characters

Originally published at www.amydevitt.com on my blog Genre-Colored Glasses. Follow me on Medium or send me your email to be added to my newsletter whenever I post.

Writer, teacher, researcher, PhD, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use. www.amydevitt.com