Should Twitter lose the 140-character limit or would that be suicide?

September 3, 2015, 6:39 PM UTC
<> on November 7, 2013 in London, England.
Twitter's app on November 7, 2013 in London, England.
Photograph by Bethany Clarke — Getty Images

Once the darling of the tech sphere, Twitter (TWTR) is currently in the midst of an existential crisis of sorts. It is without a permanent CEO, it isn’t showing the kind of user growth that investors want to see, and as a result the stock has fallen to the point where it is below its initial public-offering price. So is now the time for radical action? Should it give up one of its most distinctive features, the 140-character limit? Some say it should. But doing so would be a significant risk, since it would mean losing one of the things that makes Twitter unique.

There have been calls for Twitter to ditch the 140-character limit almost since the service first started. Some argued that it should give up any limit whatsoever, while others lobbied for a variety of equally arbitrary limits. Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo, for example (now a writer at the New York Times), said in 2011 that the company should boost the limit to 280 characters.

Supporters of no-limit Twitter say it is a holdover from an earlier time that serves no real purpose. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey originally implemented the 140-character restriction because he expected that most people would use text-messaging services from their mobile carriers to update their status, and most text messages were truncated at 160 characters. Short messages were also seen as being more approachable for new users who might be intimidated by the need to come up with longer posts.

In a recent post on his blog, designer Eugene Wei—the former head of product for Flipboard and before that for Hulu—argues that the time for Twitter to get rid of the restriction has long since passed. At this point, he says, the arbitrary length limit is holding the service back, and possibly driving more users to Facebook (FB) where they can post things that are as long as they want.

“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.”

As Wei and others have pointed out, the 140-character limit isn’t even really a limit any more, since Twitter users have come up with all kinds of hacks to get around the barrier. Some do so by posting what are known as “tweetstorms,” a series of numbered tweets that are all connected—a format that Andreessen Horowitz founder Marc Andreessen has become known for. Others use screenshots of pages of text as a way of quoting from a blog post or news article.

Even Twitter itself has found ways of getting around its own arbitrary limit: In 2012, it launched what it called expanded tweets, which when clicked on display an excerpt of a news story or a photo or video. In 2013, it started expanding photos by default and auto-playing videos (something that has become an issue with disturbing imagery of breaking news events). And earlier this year, it got rid of the character limit for direct messages completely. Says Wei:

“Twitter, more than any other company, needs to stop listening to its earliest users and recognize that deep down, its core strength is not the 140 character limit per Tweet, nor is it the strict reverse chronological timeline, or many other things its earliest users treat as gospel… 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.”

Supporters of the idea say removing the 140-character limit would free Twitter from an unnecessary restriction, and make it more competitive with social networks like Facebook. And, they say, it would do better against messaging services like WhatsApp and Line and Kik, which have taken over from text messaging as the default way that many younger users communicate. Ben Thompson, who writes a subscription technology-analysis newsletter called Stratechery, has argued repeatedly that the core value of Twitter is the network of connections that users have, not the artificial length of its messages.

Some have even argued that Twitter’s length restriction might be holding it back in terms of international growth, since 140 characters is much more confining for certain foreign languages than it is for English. In a piece for The Telegraph, the research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media said that while 140 characters might be enough for many North American users, in some languages such as German, “it’s barely enough for you to clear your throat.”

Proponents of no-limit Twitter say it wouldn’t be difficult to extend tweets, while still keeping the stream from looking like a giant page of blog posts. All the company would have to do, they say, is maintain a limit like 140 characters for the actual display of a tweet inside the app or on the Twitter website, but add a “read more” link that would allow a user to expand the message. Some have even suggested Twitter should merge with former Twitter CEO Evan Williams’ Medium platform for this purpose. As Wei puts it:

“Rather than force users to jump through all these hoops to publish longer content, Twitter could just allow users to write more than 140 characters in one Tweet, truncating the whole of it after some limit and posting a Read More button to allow readers to see the rest of the thought. Blasphemy! many will shout. I can already see the pitchforks in the distance. Some good old blasphemy is just what Twitter needs.”

In a sense, debates like the one about message length tap into a broader ongoing debate about Twitter’s future, in the same way that discussions about features like algorithmic filtering of the tweet-stream do. Many users—particularly die-hard power users hate the idea of Twitter making such changes, in part because they think the service is copying Facebook. But many also believe losing the length limit would water down the uniqueness of the service.

At least some Twitter fans, however, argue that the company needs to figure out how to appeal to more users, and such changes could be part of the solution. Despite the appeal of the short-message format, they say the service is still too opaque and cumbersome for new users, and it’s not obvious why they should bother with it when Facebook is in many ways a lot more welcoming. That’s a problem that Twitter needs to solve if it is to prosper and grow—but can it do so without losing what made it successful in the first place?

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