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[OPINION] Twitter, #selflove and the cost of 280 characters

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief.”

That (half) quote by Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities clocks in at exactly 140 characters. The character limit that made Twitter famous for its microblog status in an age of social media where users could post the mighty rant on Facebook, for example.

But Twitter has changed its disposition and expanded its character to 280 characters - double the previous allowance. Is this kind of expansion really the change we need in a time of rife hate crimes, bots and bullying? Twitter already suffers a lot of flack when it comes to user monitoring, user banning and ethical practices. Have we given up on humanity altogether? Is Twitter just the digital Trump of our technocratic age?

Once upon a micro-status time,140 characters meant that you really had to think about word economy. You had to kill your darlings to get your point across – if, in fact, you had one. And this opened up (believe it or not) the gates of opportunity for a lot of wit and a lot of wisdom.

Of course, the limitations came with a few reservations and criticisms. Life is, of course, not about a typographical sound bite in 140 characters. It’s more than that. It’s a lengthy soliloquy of giving and taking, sharing and scaring, and ups and downs. And because everyone has become a philosopher, the cutting of characters on the social media platform was upsetting. How to share profound observations in so few words? How would hipsters be hip with so few opportunities for overusing ellipses?

Still, a lot of “poets” were born. Author Iain S Thomas made a career out of literally one-word sentences in modern-day verse.

But the troll was born as well. Bred on other platforms, Twitter is where the troll grew wings and learnt how to fly. And now with more characters at their disposal, trolls will evolve once more. From talking heads, to monsters with several talking heads, spewing vitriol 280 characters at a time.

More room for letters and symbols on Twitter is a step too far in the pursuit of status. It’s an undesirable and damaging mutation of the already flawed concept of #selflove in the long run.

The change is, of course, self-serving and why shouldn’t it be? We live in an era where narcissism is the name of the game, why should the company who provides the service not benefit from the psychology of its users?

Slate reports that according to a Twitter study, the new adjustment increases engagement and satisfaction. It leaves little reason to edit and more room to say what you need to say. Ultimately, that means less thinking and more typing. A test case found that users experienced a higher volume of retweets and likes.

A Guardian story written way back in 2014 said social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts. “The more narcissisitic you are, the heavier your social media use is,” it continued. In 2017, this translates to heavier tweets.

Self-love is as self-love does. A portrayal of a digitally desirable self-image, a ‘brand’, and a tendency to become popular based on the approval by total strangers is not an accurate reflection of wellbeing and happiness.

In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a desperate need to seek endorsement based on a measurement of “likes” in order to harness a rather superficial sense of what we call a healthy identity. Ultimately, #selflove is the Swiss cheese of ego. It tastes good, but it’s full of holes. Moral flaws have punched pits into the concept. It’s a meal made of selfishness and vanity. Having self-esteem and regard for one’s own happiness is a little bit different from abusing that regard to one’s own advantage. In this scenario, #selflove equals #selfdamage.

27 characters pretty much sum up the state of online civilisation: “It is the worst of times”.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment. Follow her on Twitter.

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