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Twitter reignites debate over ending the 140-character limit

September 29, 2015, 9:41 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

Twitter is still be trying to find a permanent CEO, with co-founder and interim CEO Jack Dorsey the odds-on favorite at the moment, according to a number of reports. But in the meantime, the company is also trying hard to come up with ways to juice its user numbers, and one of the items under consideration is apparently the 140-character limit for updates, and whether there should be ways around it.

A report from Re/code was somewhat vague, saying only that Twitter was “building a new product” that would allow users to publish longer forms of content to the service. A Wall Street Journal story said the company was considering several different solutions, all the way from simply increasing the number of characters allowed in a tweet to building a separate content platform for longer pieces.

Slate columnist Will Oremus, meanwhile, said that he didn’t have any actual knowledge of Twitter’s plans, but expects that the company will simply add support for longer tweets and then include a “more” button — similar to the one Facebook uses — so that people can click and read more if they wish.

There have also been reports that Twitter is working on ways to help media outlets and publishers publish their content directly on the service, as an attempt to compete with Facebook’s “Instant Articles” feature. Some believe that might open the door to allowing users to host longer-form content on Twitter, with excerpts of that content appearing in a “card” or expanded tweet, just as videos or quoted tweets do.

For some Twitter users, and particularly hard-core fans who have been on the service for years, fiddling with the 140-character limit is a little like suggesting to a Catholic that the Virgin Mary wasn’t actually a virgin, or telling a young parent that school lunches should be replaced with Soylent.

Responses from users to the Re/code story about the proposed changes ranged from shock to outright horror. Some said the move would be suicide, since the 140-character limit is one of the most identifiable things about the service — what the advertising industry would call its “unique selling proposition.” Others said the news was just more evidence that the company is completely adrift without a CEO.

Not everyone is quite so contemptuous about the idea, however. Henry Blodget, the Business Insider co-founder (who just finished selling his company to German media giant Axel Springer for $343-million) said that the 140-character limit was holding the company back and he couldn’t wait for it to be lifted.

Designer Eugene Wei, who used to work at Flipboard and before that was at Hulu, also believes the limit on characters in an update is an antiquated holdover from the service’s earlier days (it was originally designed to make it easier for people to get tweets via SMS). In a recent blog post, he said the limit was holding the service back and was likely driving some users to Facebook and Medium.

Tech and media analyst Ben Thompson, who publishes a subscription newsletter called Stratechery, has also argued that the 140-character restriction isn’t the most important thing about Twitter by a long shot. The core value proposition of the service, he says, is the social network that users have created by following other users. The length of the actual tweet, he suggests, is irrelevant.

So why do so many users react so indignantly to the idea of lengthening messages? Much like the resistance to algorithmic filtering of the timeline (something Twitter is also considering in a variety of ways), there’s a perception that changing the length of tweets will make the service more like Facebook — which many don’t like. There also seems to be a concern about an already noisy social-media environment becoming even noisier once people can post updates of any length.

For Twitter, however, all of those things may pale in comparison to the company’s fear that it is becoming increasingly less relevant, and that its user growth and other metrics are hurting the stock price. And there seems to be an attitude within the company that if co-founder Dorsey says it’s okay to play around with previously inviolate standards like the 140 limit, then it should go ahead and do so.

If the past is any guide, many of those who have been complaining the most about the potential change will continue to gripe if it becomes a reality, and then go right on using the service as much or more than they did before. But will it appeal to new users?

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.