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The story behind Britney's iconic global warming/Lady Gaga tweet and what it tells us about Twitter six years on

Does anyone think global warming is a good thing?

🦄🦄🦋🦋🐭🐭🐯🐯🐰🐰

A post shared by Britney Spears (@britneyspears) on

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Twitter announced that they were trialing a new 280-character count on tweets. In explaining the logic behind the decision, they cited the fact that users found it difficult to condense their thoughts into 140 characters. Seems like a pretty major realisation to make almost a decade into your business, but okay!

The move has already prompted a backlash with many questioning Twitter’s priorities and pointing to other issues that the website has consistently failed to address. After all, what good is a 280-character limit when Twitter lets anonymous trolls send death threats and rape threats with wild abandon?

Others pointed to the fact that the 140-character format has spawned some incredible tweets over the years.

Like…

And…

One tweet that came up time and time again was a delightfully wacky tweet sent by one Britney Jean Spears in February 2011. Chances are you’ve seen it retweeted into your timeline over the past few days as an example of how Twitter’s product is just fine as it is.

Are you ready for it?

The tweet begins with what looks to be an earnest question about climate change before pivoting to a fangirl tweet about Lady Gaga. It’s unclear how the two subjects are related, if at all. Devoid of context, it looks like a bizarre stream of consciousness. The quintessential Mam tweet, if you will.

Over the past few years, the tweet has become somewhat of a meme in the vein of Wayne Rooney’s famous “I wanna run to u” Whitney Houston tribute or indeed Wayne Rooney’s menacing tweet threatening to, er, beat himself up. Every day, people retweet it, often with commentary like “ICONIC” or “????”

As seductive as it is to imagine Britney Spears pondering whether global warming might actually be a good thing and tweeting out wacky non-sequiturs over a glass of pinot grigio, it turns out that this tweet has a far less interesting backstory than you might imagine.

On the day in question, Britney Spears was participating in a fan Q&A on Twitter ahead of the release of her album Femme Fatale. Over the course of the chat, she teased the album, praised Madonna and denied rumours she was attending the Grammy Awards.

After a series of relatively bland questions, one mischievous fan named @PrinceAli89 jokingly asked the singer for her opinion on global warming and Lady Gaga.

Britney shared Ali’s question.

And answered the two-part question in the now infamous tweet we all know and love.

With this context, it’s clear that Spears’ initial question was rhetorical. Almost Chandler Bing-esque, really. (“Could global warming be any worse?”) Additionally, her comment about Lady Gaga wasn’t intended to be read in the same breath.

Six years on, this tweet serves as a reminder of Twitter’s considerable limitations back in 2011 and highlights how it has evolved as a medium in the intervening years.

Back then, you couldn’t quote tweets and were forced to rely on manual retweets for added context. (Remember “RT”?) Links and photos took up precious character space. Threads didn’t exist. In other words, it made for a vastly inferior product.

If Britney Spears were to send that tweet today, she would almost certainly quote the fan’s question for the sake of context and coherence. Her words wouldn’t be misconstrued as babble and we wouldn’t be talking about the tweet six years later.

Many of the changes Twitter has adopted over the last few years have been met with resistance and a flurry of “I hate the new Twitter” declarations. But users inevitably move on, adapt and come to accept it.

If there’s one thing Britney’s tweet can teach us, however, it’s that such websites are a constant work-in-progress that can always be improved upon.

Perhaps 280 characters will be the death knell for Twitter, a website locked in a constant battle to attract new users. Or maybe we’ll look back in six years time and scoff at the notion of 27-part threads just as we laugh now at how cumbersome it was to have to host photos on Twitpic once upon a time.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll be imagining Britney Spears watching Five Foot Two and googling “climate change good?”

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