Twitter trials 280 characters, but its success in Japan is more than a character difference

Twitter has rolled out a limited trial of 280 characters for some of its users. In announcing the trial, Twitter specifically noted that most Japanese tweets had 15 characters while most English tweets had 34 characters. They also noted that only 0.4% of Japanese tweets hit the 140-character limit whereas 9% of English tweets do.

How differences in the information density of languages leads to different user experiences on Twitter is something I published on in 2015 with Han-Teng Liao and King-wa Fu and also a question that researchers at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) investigated from a different prospective.

Ostensibly Twitter launched with a 140-character limit to allow tweets to be “consumed easily anywhere, even via mobile text messages” (SMS). Of course, text messages have a byte limit, not a character limit; so, tweets only ever fit within one text message for a small number of languages. Furthermore, what seemed like a universal design choice—140 characters—actually has rather different effects in different languages. These differences are most pronounced for Japanese and Chinese, and Twitter has done particularly well in Japan, a success it wants to replicate in more locations.

There are a number of ways we can measure how much information is conveyed by one character. Regardless of the measure, however, it is clear that a language like Japanese contains more information per character than English (e.g., 政治 vs. politics). In our research, we used translations of TED talks to arrive at a figure of one Japanese character approximating 2.5 English characters (and one traditional Chinese character approximating 3.2 English characters). That isn’t the whole story, however, because the amount of information in a tweet is also a function of its length, and tweets in Japanese and Chinese tend to have fewer characters than English tweets. Nonetheless, we do find that tweets in Japanese and Chinese tend to have more information content than tweets in English on average. Twitter’s move to double the amount of characters for languages other than Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) while somewhat arbitrary should allow more than enough space to fit the information content of the average Japanese or Chinese tweet in English.

The big question for Twitter is whether the move will increase use of and engagement with the platform. Here, unfortunately, there is a lot more than the character limit at play. Japan has long been an outlier in technology use, leading to what the Japanese have dubbed the Galápagos effect (ガラパゴス化). Its mobile phones had email in 1999, cameras in 2000, 3G in 2001, music downloads in 2002, e-money in 2004, and digital TV in 2005—all long before other markets.

Twitter was embraced quickly in the country and Japanese users of Twitter form a dense, but isolated, portion of the Twitter network. Japanese also stands out as a unique language community on TripAdvisor, Wikipedia (in terms of article creation by anonymous users, bilingualism, and content differences [pdf]), and other platforms. Ultimately, the use of a given technology is a function not only of its user experience (which Twitter can shape as it has with the character limit), but also many elements of culture that are beyond the control of the company.

Similar tweets from @usembassytokyo in Japanese and English. The embassy often includes more detail/explanation in its Japanese-language tweets.

Even within a single language, Twitter is supporting a number of different use cases simultaneously (staying in touch with friends, following news, co-experiencing a live event or conference, etc.). More characters will enhance some of these, be unimportant to others, and perhaps detract from still others. There simply is not a single technological fix that will enhance everyone’s experience across languages and use cases. One possible character-related change is adding a “soft limit”—showing only the first X characters of a tweet by default and providing a “…more” link that can be clicked to show the rest of the tweet. This would balance the compact display of tweets, encourage users to strive for conciseness, and yet also accommodate use cases where more information is truly needed.

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Featured in The Economist: A new kind of weather

My recently published book, Political Turbulence, was referenced in a special report on technology and politics in The Economist that examined questions of democracy, data, politics, and social media.

A figure from the book was also included in a tweet and blog post by The Economist:

From the special report:

A new book entitled “Political Turbulence” come[s] to an intriguing conclusion: social media are making democracies more “pluralistic”, but not in the conventional sense of the word, involving diverse but stable groups. Instead, the authors see the emergence of a “chaotic pluralism”, in which mobilisations spring from the bottom up, often reacting to events. Online mobilisation can develop explosively and seemingly at random. …
Politics in the age of social media, the authors conclude, is better described by chaos theory than by conventional social science: “Tiny acts of political participation that take place via social media are the units of analysis, the equivalent of particles and atoms in a natural system, manifesting themselves in political turbulence.” One day, say the authors, it [might] be possible to predict and trigger such surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather. …Read more (paywall).

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Reviewed in Science: “Important series of creatively and rigorously researched insights”

Arnout van de Rijt reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in Science Magazine. The review, entitled “The social revolution,” states that the book

… contributes an important series of creatively and rigorously researched insights into the social mechanics of Internet-based collective action, handing researchers a new toolbox of methods and techniques in the process. …Read more (paywall)

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Political Turbulence in The Guardian

John Naughton referenced my book, Political Turbulence, in his column in The Guardian entitled, “#Twitter crisis? Not if it decides that it can be a smaller, smarter platform.”

In a thought-provoking new book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, Professor Helen Margetts and her colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute provide empirical evidence that social media are starting to change our politics in ways not yet appreciated or understood. Platforms such as Twitter, they write, are providing “zero-touch co-ordination for micro-donations of time, effort, and money and are replacing organisations and institutions in some areas of political life. Indeed, organisations increasingly resemble social media platforms in the way they present themselves to the public, with facilities for commenting and encouraging the sharing of content.” …Read more

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Political Turbulence in openDemocracyUK

Stuart Weir has reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in openDemocracyUK.

A few years back I was intrigued and captivated, as a largely analogue political animal, by Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere on the revolutionary part that social media were playing in the Arab Spring and global politics. But for all the enthusiasm, anecdotes and insights, it was ultimately unsatisfying. Here now is a revelatory study, Political Turbulence, which looks more closely and systematically at why “it” – that is, significant collective action – “is kicking off”, and why, much more frequently, it doesn’t. …Read more

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Multilingualism research reported by Fusion Media

In an article entitled, “Unless you speak English, the Internet doesn’t care about you,” Fusion Media writer Kristen Brown references my research as well as that of Brent Hecht and Mark Graham. She also includes reference to the Bridge project by Meedan to crowdsource the translation of social media, for which I am on the advisory board.

Scott Hale, a data scientist focused on bilingualism at the Oxford Internet Institute, told me that user interfaces could help break down language barriers by allowing users to interact … in multiple languages at once. Allowing people to easily toggle between languages is one way to break down the linguistic silos that online life creates. …Read more

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Political Turbulence co-author in DW

My co-author Helen Margetts spoke with Deutsche Welle last week about our book, book, Political Turbulence, and a range of topics from the role of social media in mobilizations to the (lack of) sustainability of social media campaigns. An article reporting their conversation is available at

Political Turbulence: we’re ‘dripping with data’ and it may make democracy better

Do social media shape collective action? Professor Helen Margetts, co-author of a new book called “Political Turbulence” says they do. By allowing us to make “micro-donations” it’s easy to join a cause. …Read more.

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Political Turbulence in Times Higher Education

Ivor Gaber reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in Times Higher Education (THE).

“Chaotic pluralism…a new kind of pluralism, highly decentred and chaotic” is what we’re living through, if we are to believe the authors of Political Turbulence. The authors, whose disciplinary backgrounds range across political science, computational science and physics, argue that this new status quo has resulted from the intrusion, if that’s the right word, of social media into the political sphere, an intrusion that they describe as “unstable, unpredictable and often unsustainable”. …Read more

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Political Turbulence on Start the Week

My co-author, Helen Margetts, discussed our book, Political Turbulence, on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the interview or download an MP3 from the BBC website.

On Start the Week Tom Sutcliffe talks to the American writer Jonathan Franzen about his latest novel, Purity. One of Franzen’s characters compares the Internet with the East German Republic and he satirises the utopian ideas of the apparatchik web-users. The head of the Oxford Internet Institute, Helen Margetts, counters with her research on the success and failure of political action via social media. The artist Tacita Dean laments the ubiquity of digital at the expense of film, and the financial journalist Gillian Tett roots out tunnel vision – both personal and business – in her new book on silos.…Listen now

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Multilingualism research featured in The Guardian

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper by Holly Yong surveys much research about online language divides, including my work on multilingualism and cross-language bridging:

Translation technologies offer one solution to bridging online language divides, while also opening up new markets for businesses. Although currently only available in a few languages, last year Microsoft launched the Skype translator, and both Facebook and Twitter have also paired up with Bing to offer users translation services.

Scott Hale, data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that more could also be done to unlock the power of multilinguals online. Internet platforms he believes could be modified to make it easier for multilingual users to find content in other languages, as well as encourage them to contribute in more than one language. “Many review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Google Play, prioritise reviews in a person’s selected user-interface language or even completely hide reviews not in the user-interface language,” says Hale. Platforms like Wikipedia, he says, could allow you to search a topic in multiple language editions at the same time.

Hale also found that although only 11% of people are multilingual on Twitter, and 15% on Wikipedia, these multilingual individuals are more active, writing more tweets and creating and editing more Wikipedia content. These people, he believes, could potentially challenge the Balkanisation of information and discussion online. Whether it is translating and bringing foreign concepts into different language editions on Wikipedia, or moving breaking local news stories to new language communities and different geographies, they have the power to be influential.

Full article is available at Some of my research is covered in the section on “Bridging the divide”.

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