Should Twitter Mess With The 140-Character Limit?

By Jennifer Van Grove
The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Twitter is considering not being Twitter — and by that I mean the company may let users post tweets longer than 140 characters. A pair of reports earlier this week claimed the company is toying with a product for posting the opposite of pithy blurbs, as in long-form content.

What that product, reportedly called “140 Plus,” looks like is unknown, but for Twitter purists, myself included, changing or expanding Twitter’s character constraint sounds like blasphemy. The Twitter we know and love is one defined by brevity. One hundred and forty characters. No more. No less. That’s what sets Twitter apart from other social apps, Facebook in particular, where friends can ramble on for as long as they’d like, sometimes consuming the entire screen with a single post.

“If Twitter makes a tweet just like a Facebook post, which is just like an Instagram post, I won’t see the value,” said Golden Hill resident Peggy Gartin, 49, a Twitter power user who has been using the service since April of 2008. “Twitter will be just like everybody else.”

But the social network isn’t thinking about me or Peggy. It’s thinking about normals, as in the people who use Facebook, even Instagram, but not Twitter. And Twitter needs normals, if only to prove to anxious shareholders that the social media company hasn’t maxed out at its current 316 million monthly users. The number isn’t a small one, but in the digital rat race where social and messaging apps are speeding to reach a billion or more users, Twitter is lagging way behind. And the stock is in a major slump as a result.

Maybe, just maybe, Twitter can jumpstart growth, and investor confidence by association, if it dumps the character restriction, which is now just an artificial constraint — or so the logic goes. After all, plenty of Twitter users already circumvent the constraint by posting photos with text or composing a string of related tweets in what’s known as a “tweetstorm.”

“Yes, a 140 character limit enforces some concision in writing, rewarding the witty among us, but it also alienates a lot of people who hate having to edit a thought multiple times just to fit in the arbitrary limit. Lots of those people abandoned Twitter and publish on Facebook instead,” wrote Eugene Wei, who most recently served as the head of product at the social news app Flipboard.

Wei’s argument, published a month ago in a widely circulated blog post, is that the essence of Twitter isn’t the character limit. Rather, it’s the network, which is a medium for public discourse.

“Twitter’s chief strength is that it’s an elegant public messaging protocol that allows anyone to write something quickly and easily, and for anyone in the world to see that writing,” Wei said. “It’s a public marketplace of information.”

He’s right about Twitter being a public forum, but that’s exactly the problem. There are, as I see it, two kinds of people in this world. Those who want to tweet and those who don’t. And the latter group isn’t about to convert if given the opportunity to say more.

“I don’t like how Twitter is people talking about themselves and their lives twenty-four-seven,” said Bonnie Given, 25, a graduate student in Pacific Grove. She created a Twitter account years ago for a school project but has since abandoned her account. “It’s just not that attractive to me to begin with.”

Would she feel differently if Twitter changed the character limit? “Not really … it would be less attractive, actually, because people would have no limit.”

She’s not alone. “I don’t think it would matter,” said San Diegan Joe Kuhn, 34, on a potential change in tweet length. The environmental scientist does not currently use Twitter and does not plan to anytime soon. “I don’t feel the need to blast out stuff, I guess. Facebook is plenty.”

Some who follow Twitter’s business also aren’t convinced a drastic character change would do much good.

“Twitter needs to achieve three things to realize a much greater potential: Grow the user base, increase engagement and grow its unique user data assets to improve monetization,” said Rick Summer, an analyst who covers Twitter for Morningstar. “We are highly skeptical that altering the character limit will materially improve Twitter’s ability to do any of those three things, and might actually lead to some negative effects.”

Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner, holds a more nuanced view. He’s not convinced removing the character limit is necessary, but, then again, he’s open to change.

“The 140-character limit is due for an update,” said Blau. “Tweets can and should grow in functionality over time, making better use of the unique way that the Twitter service has taken hold.”

Perhaps instead of fudging with its characteristic format, Twitter could stop counting the characters associated with links or photos added to tweets when tallying a tweet’s total character count. Even Gartin, the power user, would appreciate something of that nature.

Though small changes such as these would likely not correspond to large gains in new users.

If Howard Lindzon, a Coronado-based entrepreneur and finance expert, gets his way, Twitter will stick with its fast-moving, reverse chronological stream of 140-character tweets, but create a complementary publishing tool that is hooked into the service. So those with more to say could write their wordy essays and publish them on Twitter. The rest of us, however, would just see a truncated snippet, and we could click to read more if we felt so inclined.

Really, though, Twitter has bigger problems than its character conundrum. Even should interim (and former) CEO Jack Dorsey be reinstated as the full-time chief executive, as is expected, the company still has an identity crisis on its hands. What is Twitter, really? Nine years later, even those of us who use it daily struggle to come up with a concise description. Twitter’s leaders have fared no better.

“This should not be the No. 1 thing Twitter does,” Lindzon, who owns a small number of Twitter shares, said of changing the length of tweets. Lindzon thinks the social network has a better chance of turning things around by making smart acquisitions.

“Twitter has got a lot of work to do. There’s just no easy way around it.”

Maybe the hard thing to do is to make a change that would disrupt Twitter’s status quo. To shake things up and remove the character restriction that might be scaring off the masses. That would be a bold move, for sure. But it would, for many, remove much of the fun from the service.

“Twitter is just kind of funky, open and loose,” Gartin said. “If posts are too long, I just think it would suck.”

I think so, too.

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