Twitter is reportedly thinking about taking the character limit on its tweets from 140 to 10,000.
In effect, Twitter is thinking about effectively eliminating the cap on how long tweets can be. (This post, for example, is WAY less than 10,000 characters.)
Of course, it’s unlikely any users will actually be tweeting things that are 10,000 characters long (though there will be plenty of really long tweets sent as a lark by users who want to be difficult and/or show their followers how smart and clever they are!) or that the current batch of heavy Twitter users would get anywhere close to reading 10,000 characters even if they were sent with earnest intentions.
Regardless, Twitter users are outraged because people hate change and they especially hate change that is imposed on them. So be it.
But I think removing the character limit is a great idea for a company that has seemed short on them.
Basically, I don’t think a 10,000 character limit will change the core experience of getting snippets of information from a wide variety of users. Nor will these effectively uncapped tweet lengths “clog up” users’ timelines with long blocks of text.
(As Re/code’s Kurt Wagner reported, there are ongoing discussions about how tweets will be displayed and it seems that this can go a lot of ways. One of those would, you’d think, also include keeping the 140-character limit in place.)
But first let’s look at where Twitter is, product-wise, right now.
There is the timeline, which displays tweets in reverse chronological order (i.e. last tweet first) on Twitter.com and the mobile app, and then there’s TweetDeck — which I use — where tweets are shown in order but you can group users into columns.
Aside from this there isn’t much else.
Twitter’s most recent product rollout is Moments, which brings users through a series of tweets curated by people who work at Twitter that are sort of interesting but sometimes not.
At the time of this writing, Moments featured President Obama’s press conference where he teared up at the top, followed by an explainer on the Saudi Arabia-Iran conflict, some Trump comments, and “10 Tweets you need to see.” Moments, then, kind of looks like Business Insider or lots of other news websites.
In a way Moments is a step taken by Twitter to take down the time constraints imposed by the timeline. (We’d also note that Wagner has previously reported that Twitter is considering tinkering with the chronology of timelines as well.)
Inside Twitter’s mobile app you’ll first see a few tweets sent over the last few hours if you haven’t checked your timeline recently. But again, Twitter’s product is still basically consumed in order.
This often makes it hard to follow threads — or conversations between two or more users — and hard to follow “tweetstorms” — or a series of tweets sent out by a user in short succession on the same topic.
Taking away the character limit, in theory, eliminates the tweetstorm. Some users, take New Republic editor Jeet Heer for example, are likely to continue to publish tweetstorms. The 140-character limit, after all, imposes an economy on thinking and language that allowed many of Twitter’s heaviest users to flourish.
But so if you think about the evolution of the company as going from obscure social network to hot social network to dying social network, what we’re left with in year 10 for Twitter is a user base that even the company admits is about as big as it’s going to get (for now), populated by a few users who tweet a lot and “get” the platform with others who merely scroll through their timelines or have forgotten about it altogether.
Taken this way, then, the only people heavily using Twitter are those who thrived in the 140-character limit. The outrage, then, is expected: the only people tweeting right now are the people who really liked the 140-character limit. In fact, these people might think they even need the limit.
But of course this limit was always somewhat arbitrary, a vestige imposed on Twitter by its SMS origins long since deemed obsolete by smartphones.
The 140-character limit then became Twitter’s brand. And if the way the company has been received by investors over the last year means anything, then Twitter’s brand is dying or worse.
So here we are: no more character limits. Reportedly.
And so why am I so bullish on the 10,000-character limit being a good thing?
Well for one I don’t think users who consistently tweet things that are, say, 5,000-characters long — the average English word is 5 characters so this would be a tweet that is roughly 1,000 words long, or longer than the average New York Times op-ed column — are unlikely to gain the same traction as users who stick to the current limit.
The network is built on people sharing quick bits of information in a timely manner.
Of course, Matt Levine’s entire newsletter could almost be posted to a new 10,000-character Twitter — instead of emailed out — but 1. It would probably be harder to read and 2. Readers will likely just go to Bloomberg View to read it, anyway. And more to the point, Levine’s job — like mine — is to get readers to go to a website where they can read words which are surrounded by ads companies pay for.
It is not my job — and not the job of most journalist-types on Twitter — to write on Twitter but to get users from Twitter to somewhere else. (See Derek Thompson for a great discussion of how much traffic Twitter really drives. The answer: not much, because stuff posted on Twitter resonated with users on Twitter. Same for Facebook. Same for Business Insider, frankly.)
My point being that Twitter “unchained,” if you will, is going to look a lot like Twitter right now: short bits of information and links to stuff. Journalists and financial-market types have both gravitated towards Twitter because it effectively serves as a running ticker of the day’s news. Making the allowable limit for tweets long will not change this.
Additionally, it’s worth thinking about Twitter as a business.
Facebook, which dwarfs Twitter in terms of scale, has been bringing more and more content in-house.
Media companies are now posting “Instant Articles“on Facebook which keep users inside Facebook instead of sending them to outside sites. And as Facebook continues to bolster its own news division you can imagine that it hopes to increasingly become a one-stop-shop for where people spend their free time when not at work (and even then!).
This is good for Facebook’s advertisers, who would of course like users to spend more time on Facebook so that there’s a higher chance they are exposed to their advertisements. Which they paid for. And what’s good for Facebook’s advertisers will be good for Facebook’s business. And so on.
Twitter, in a sense, is then doing the same thing. By removing the character limit on messages inside its platform Twitter not only gives users but advertisers more flexibility with how they can use the platform.
Piggybacking off my first argument that the most rewarded users — and by this I mean followed, liked, retweeted — will be those who still roughly stay inside the 140-character lines or something resembling them, advertisers are likely to act the same way.
But the flexibility that a larger character limit provides — which could include better embedding of videos or photos, for example — at least gives Twitter a chance to be something other than it is.
Because what the company and the service is right now needs to change.
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