Twitter’s new voice function is about to create a whole lot more noise

Twitter is testing a voice function, allowing users to record tweets. But, as Tomas Haffenden explains, you can cram a lot more into 140 seconds than you can into 280 characters. And as a result, the platform could soon be filled with more noise than ever.

Fourteen years after Twitter encouraged the world to write down and share what was on its mind, we are now on the cusp of something new. A couple of weeks ago, the platform announced it was testing the ability to voice record your tweets, but 140 seconds could be just enough to destroy what makes Twitter unique.

With more than 300m users, firing out 340m tweets a day, it would be fair to say even a minor change to Twitter will likely ruffle some feathers. But is there any real difference between reading Trump’s latest gem as opposed to hearing him splutter it out?

The move towards voice as an interface is hard to ignore, as are the obvious strengths of voice as a medium. Long before the advent of written language, our voice was how we got our points across. Whether it be a perfectly balanced and reasoned argument, or face-to-face screaming at your wife over the last Tim Tam… hypothetically.

There is something incredibly powerful and natural about the spoken word that is impossible to match in its written form. Intonation, timbre and cadence of a voice can totally change the meaning of what is being said; anyone subjected to the retelling of a joke by a drunk friend will attest to how badly delivery matters.

But the spoken word is not without its limitations. When we write, we can craft the message until it is just so. Speaking doesn’t really give us that same safety net. We have all been guilty of a slip of the tongue, remembering moments too late that the correct answer to ‘Are these muffins a bit dry?’ is always ‘No, darling’.

Coherently talking for any length of time and producing a clear and salient point, like that of a traditional tweet, is going to be a challenge for most of us, but perhaps not all.

A seemingly unending stream of content-creators appear to be waiting in the wings for the next restrictive canvas to stretch to its outermost limits. We only need to remember the joy of Vine (may it rest in peace) and more recently Tiktok to see how an unforced restriction seems to stimulate, not stifle, creativity.

140 seconds is, of course, no coincidence. At Twitter’s inception, that was the character limit placed on tweets, chosen in part due to the character limit of SMS messages (remember that?) at the time.

This enforced restriction has always been part of Twitter’s beauty. The limitation in length has challenged users to ensure every character is working as hard as possible to get the message across.

No doubt the number of seconds selected for these recordings is a nod to Twitter’s past, but when you start to explore what can be done with that amount of time, and compare it to a written tweet, something seems off.

At an average pace, that time will allow for around 320 words. In Twitter terms, that’s War and Peace, more than 75 times the length of the average tweet! There seems to be a danger here, that by finding its voice, Twitter will stop being Twitter. Only time will tell how this new feature is going to used and abused, but moving the goalposts – or the length of the pitch, in this case – doesn’t always have the most predictable outcomes.

Interestingly, even after twitter doubled the original character limit in 2017, the average length of Tweets remained a steady 34 characters. It would seem that, even with the ability to say more, the majority of users were happy playing by the original rules.

In introducing a voice feature, Twitter said its motivations are to create a “more human experience” and remove the ambiguity of using only text. Remaining relevant and providing a new medium for those of us unwilling to use Tiktok will also not have escaped their notice.

Regardless of the ambitions, this is a further acknowledgement of the central role voice is going to play in our digital future. And yet another example of a forward-thinking brand making the necessary changes to prepare for it.

We all know the drill by now. In the race to be first, there will be plenty of misguided attempts and resulting humiliations, which I for one am looking forward too. The world is about to be woken up by millions of tiny blue-birds, making an awful lot of noise.

Tomas Haffenden is founder of Electric Sheep


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