I must admit, when I heard last autumn that Twitter was experimenting with a higher character limit for tweets, my first thought was: “Probably won’t happen”. This was, however, quickly followed by a second thought of: “If it does happen, the site had better brace itself for the DMCA notices”. Now it looks fairly likely that the tweet character limit will be increased, that nagging issue of copyright infringement still looks to be one of the biggest talking points for the long term. But will this be an entirely negative debate, or could a higher character limit actually create better conditions for copyright holders in some cases?
One thing that is certain, is that the way Twitter manages the searchability of the additional text is going to be key. If all text is pushed to the search engines, then Twitter’s enormous PageRank will doubtless ensure that any stolen content is highly visible to its copyright holders.
In many quarters, it’s become accepted that images on the Internet are going to be re-posted in breach of copyright on Twitter, and the same goes for jokes and quotes. But it’s hard to imagine Twitter getting away with the same level of leeching on long-form text. Can you imagine major players in the phenomenally competitive Web Search race standing back whilst moronic ‘Twitter marketers’ and other SM parasites re-post their entire articles and start eating into their profits? No, nor can I. They’re going to issue takedown notices if searchable, stolen text content starts to punish them in the pocket.
So whilst Twitter may desperately want long-form text to rank on Google and bring more traffic to the site, making longer posts searchable outside Twitter could seriously hammer the support centre with DMCA notices.
Let’s face facts. A huge proportion of what’s posted on Twitter is secondhand and infringing copyright conditions. Content theft has become ingrained into the culture, because the black hole nature of Twitter demands both high quality and high volume. For 99.9% plus of the Twitter userbase, that cannot be sustained without outsourcing content. And on a site that instantly strips the value out of everything it leeches from the outside world, no one is going to pay to outsource Twitter content. Theft is inevitable.
Amateur joke and quote creators (most of whom are small-time, powerless, and/or unsure of their rights on plagiarism) might reluctantly tolerate that theft, but competitive businesses who are literally PAYING writers to populate their sites with search optimised articles will not.
This leads us neatly to the question of short-form content. One of the staple retorts of the Twitter content thief has been a variation on:
“But I only have 140 characters! There’s no room to add an attribution!”
So could an increase in the character count for tweets actually prompt some of those currently re-posting unattributed, to start attributing? Crucially, will some photographers who are, at present, having their photos stolen, actually begin getting links from Twitter?…
It depends on a number of things. Firstly, how are Twitter users acquiring images to re-post? In the majority of cases it appears they’re downloading them directly from Google Images. If that is the case, then unless Twitter actually builds in an extra-convenient ‘Re-post from Web’ function which automatically adds attribution (a la Tumblr), then the current state of play is likely to continue.
Even now, a few re-posters of images do attribute. The problem, in my experience, is that they tend to attribute with your Twitter handle rather than a link to your website. It’s better than someone doing it on the sneak, but in real terms, a “via @MyUsername” tag on the end of someone else’s unauthorised picture re-post gains me nothing. I might get a couple of new followers or one or two “Oh that’s a nice picture” comments, if I’m lucky. But the real gains go to the unauthorised re-poster. The person who took my work without asking and used it to help build his or her profile. He or she is the one getting the Retweets, the Likes and the more significant rise in audience.
So for an increase in tweet space to really pay off for copyright holders, Twitter has to simultaneously add attribution features, and make attributing much more convenient than not attributing. Given that the site could have adopted such features at any time in the past few years, I’m not holding much hope that it’ll exhibit any sudden desire to start being responsible now.
Another potential consequence of a tweet space increase is that it might, depending on how well long-form Twitter posts rank on Google, lead to a rise in article spinning. Spinning an article is rewriting it with the intention to divert some of the original post’s traffic to the rewritten post – importantly, without being susceptible to plagiarism accusations. The entire news industry is one big spinning exercise.
Of course, there’s no official way to monetise content on Twitter, so spinning to Twitter would seem a pointless exercise at face value. But if it debilitates traffic to the sites of business rivals, it could still be a measure some will consider. As I say, it all depends how well Twitter’s long posts rank. But if they were to gain anything like the search status of some of the one-liners, a spin could outrank an original. If that becomes a reality, some people WILL exploit it, if only for sabotage.
THIN END OF THE WEDGE?
Increasing the character limit could, however, bring the issue of copyright infringement to a head and place more pressure on Twitter to add auto-attribution. If a Tumblr-style re-post function is not added when the character limit is raised, a lot more copyright holders are likely to ask: “Hey, actually, why DON’T you have a built-in attribution system for non-native content?” Twitter can no longer cry brevity and simplicity in response.
And there’s also the strong possibility that a flood of DMCAs from long-form copyright holders could prompt tougher action from short-formers. Twitter can’t ignore DMCAs from verified long-form authors because the lack of clarity surrounding snippeting and fair use just doesn’t apply, and the law on republishing an entire long-form post in breach of copyright is considered 100% clear. But a burgeoning DMCA attack on Twitter could snowball into areas which are, at present, reluctantly tolerant.
Twitter has already hinted that if it does raise its character limit, the basic streamlining of the timelines will remain, and any long-form text will be hidden from immediate view. However, Jack Dorsey has mentioned the searchability of the additional text, so the intention is clearly to make the hidden, long-text tweet elements at least internally searchable.
Will Twitter take the risk of making long-form text externally searchable? And especially given that Google and Twitter are in collusion, will Google extend its frankly ridiculous PageRank for Twitter.com to the site’s long-form content?
If so, it bodes very well for Twitter’s page views and accordingly its advertising revenue. It bodes well for writers of original content on Twitter too. But it doesn’t bode well for plagiarised copyright holders with long-form text outside Twitter. People WILL steal longer posts. They’re doing it now. It’s just that currently, the longer posts are embedded into tweets as images and therefore the original content remains unchallenged on the search engines.
Even if a stolen post or article doesn’t outrank the original post, a Twitter rip-off sitting right beneath the authority site in the search engines is going to divert a hell of a lot of traffic away from the rightful recipient.
I suspect that the above issues will be some of the foremost dilemmas being discussed at Twitter. Per se, increasing the character limit for tweets, with all characters above the traditional 140 hidden behind a link, does not significantly affect anyone on Twitter itself. It doesn’t change their viewing experience unless they choose to Read More… or whatever, and it’s entirely up to them whether they stick to the old protocols or opt to write longer messages and content.
But if Twitter gets the implementation wrong, and starts upsetting long-form copyright holders (many of whom, ironically enough, will also be Twitter advertisers), the whole idea could seriously backfire. This, I feel, is why we’ve seen Direct (private) Messages opened up to higher character counts first.
If Twitter had not become the native preserve of plagiarists, ‘aggregators’ and “I do not claim to own any of the content I post! Fair use! Fair use!” merchants, increasing the character limit would not be an issue. Give a set of responsible citizens the keys to the bank, and everyone’s savings grow. But give those same keys to a bunch of thieves…
That’s Twitter’s problem. Every feature it adds, MUST take into account the site’s parasitic culture – which is, in my opinion, just about the worst on the Internet.
On the positive side, maybe the fact that so many people are dumping Twitter, signifies that the site is in any case on its way down the ladder. But then, what comes along as a replacement, and is it better the devil you know?…