What do character count limits really mean?

We all know that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems often use a single character to represent an entire word, but how that affects these speakers’ interactions with information technology doesn’t seem to be often considered. So let’s take a moment to do that today.

Everyone who’s ever sent a text or tweet has encountered the dreaded character limit. In SMS messages, we must contain ourselves to 160 characters, and in tweets, 140. Sure, some have achieved impressive economy of their language to express very profound thoughts in such short spaces (for example, the famous six-word novel that Hemingway possibly wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is certainly tweetable).

But for the average Joe, sometimes it’s hard to get everything you want to say in a tweet or text. Often you need to make weird abbreviations or leave out details—or maybe give up altogether and call, or decide not to tweet.

The Chinese and Japanese don’t have it so hard. Ben Summers has calculated that the communication power of Japanese tweets is equivalent to 260 English characters, far beyond the 140-character limit. That seems like a big difference, but what does that mean in the real world?

A recent article on Tofugu quotes a number of Japanese tweets, providing their English translations as well. Let’s take a look at one.

Here’s the original Japanese tweet from user @irispeach, coming in at exactly 140 characters. As you can see, there are even plenty of gratuitous punctuation marks and line breaks, just to rub it in.



And here’s the English translation that the author of the article gives:

The reason why I don’t want to dye my hair black again (or don’t want to look tidy and clean) is because a woman who has black hair and looks tidy and clean can tend to have following problems;

・They tend to be looked down on by guys.
・They tend to be molested more often than women with different hair color.
・Black hair tends to give men the impression that they are gentle, quiet, and obedient.
・They tend to give an impression of yamato-nadeshiko

Ever since I dyed my hair and stopped putting in so much time and effort applying makeup to my face, the number of times I’ve been molested has dramatically decreased. I’m no longer approached by strange men, either. I’m much more at ease now.

That’s 696 characters. Even taking into account more economical possible translations from the Japanese text, you clearly get way more bang from your buck as far as thoughts-per-tweet go.

Can you imagine scrolling through your Twitter feed, parsing such lengthy tweets? It would certainly slow you down; Twitter would feel anything but “light” and “micro.” There’s no doubt that if each tweet had a 700-character limit, the service would be radically different—probably not nearly as popular. Yet that’s exactly how it is in Japan, where it’s actually tremendously popular.

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