For some time now, Twitter has been talking—off the record, of course—about altering the standard 140-character restriction so that users can post longer messages. According to the latest reports from Re/code and the Wall Street Journal, it is now talking about increasing the limit to 10,000 characters, or almost 100 times the current maximum.
Depending on who you listen to, this is either a brilliant idea or the end of Twitter as we know it—another in a series of ill-advised steps leading to a Facebook-style clone that will almost certainly fail.
Complaints from hard-core Twitter users are nothing new. In fact, they are so common that they are almost a core feature of the product, whether it’s the response to a new format for retweets or the reaction to the recently-launched Moments news curation feature. Each time, users threaten to leave, but few actually follow through.
In a tweet of his own—which conspicuously features a screenshot of text that is much longer than 140 characters—Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey hinted at new features that would allow for longer tweets, although he said the “majority of tweets will always be short and sweet and conversational.”
There is a crucial point at the root of all this sound and fury, and it’s not that Twitter (TWTR) simply doesn’t care about its core users. It’s that those users are no longer of much help to the company, unless they significantly increase their engagement, which seems unlikely at best.
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What Twitter needs is new users, and lots of them—and it needs them to spend longer on the network, interacting with tweets and (hopefully) Twitter ads. And so it is trying everything it can think of to make that happen. Facebook (FB) also needs this from its users, which is why the two services are inexorably converging in many ways.
Although many outraged users appear to think that a 10,000-character limit means tweets of that length will suddenly start showing up in their feed, an expanded Twitter seems much more likely to consist of a standard-looking message with a “click for more” link that takes users to a separate page.
In that sense, it sounds like Twitter also wants to become more like Medium, the blogging platform founded by former Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams. Medium has also been converging on the territory occupied by Twitter over the past year or so, adding support for shorter messages as well as the long think pieces it has become known for. Could the two grow together to the point where the companies ultimately merge? Possibly.
The other important aspect of what Twitter is trying to do is that it could help position the service better in the escalating war of platforms that Facebook triggered last year, with its “Instant Articles” offering.
That feature gives publishers like the New York Times and Washington Post the ability to host their articles entirely on Facebook, with the social network taking care of the mobile publishing end as well as the advertising revenue (which it shares with its partners). It is something of a Faustian bargain, but many publishers are adopting it.
Google (GOOG) is trying to push its own open-source response to this, known as Accelerated Mobile Pages—in which Twitter is a partner—but Twitter arguably needs something more powerful than just fast loading times.
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If and when Twitter does roll out its 10,000-character feature, in other words, expect that to be quickly followed by a pitch to publishers like the Post and others to host their content entirely on Twitter, in return for a share of the advertising revenue and a commitment to help those articles go “viral.” Another step in the death of the link.
Whether any of this will make Twitter look better to investors—who have sent the stock down more than 50% over the past six months—remains to be seen. There is no question that Twitter has to do something to generate growth, but it’s not clear that expanding the length of a tweet until it becomes a blog post is going to be that thing.