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The Annenberg School for Communication.

Credit: Luke Chen

A new study from Penn's Annenberg School for Communication found that increasing Twitter's character limit from 140 to 280 characters helped promote civil speech on the platform.

The study, titled “Brevity is the Soul of Twitter: The Constraint Affordance and Political Discussion,” involved a comparative analysis of tweets from before and after Twitter doubled its character limit in 2017. At the time, many feared that increasing the character limit would exacerbate Twitter's problems of harassment, bigotry, and hate speech

The research team used natural language processing to study 358,242 tweet replies to American politicians between January 2017 and March 2018, both before and after the character limit increased. To evaluate tweets, they checked whether people used polite language, justified their opinions, wrote clearly, and provided facts and links for further information. The study was led by Communications professor Yphtach Lelkes and published in the Journal of Communication

The researchers found that once users had more space to explain themselves, their online discussions tended to be more polite and constructive. However, Lelkes said it may be dangerous to generalize these results to other social media platforms. 

“If everything about Facebook and Twitter were exactly the same except the character limit,” Lelkes said in an Annenberg press release, “we could say Facebook is more civil than Twitter. But there are too many other differences between the platforms to make that assumption.”

Lelkes and his team plan to create a mock social media app to study how factors like message length, anonymity and social identity, hashtag use, and permanence of posts affect how users behave online. This will allow them to study social media platforms more generally. 

“Kicking people off of social media platforms just doesn’t work,” Lelkes said in the press release. “We have to manipulate the technology to be more conducive to quality speech if we want to see a meaningful increase in online dialogue.”