On 26 September, Twitter launched a global test to expand tweets’ 140 character limit to 280. Apparently, 9% of all tweets in English hit the 140 character limit. Twitter employees have known about this for at least five years. So why even have a character limit, and why extend it now?
Why does Twitter even have a character limit?
Twitter started as a SMS-based messaging platform. The worldwide standard length for SMS is 160 characters. Twitter picked a 140 character limit to leave the extra 20 for the username. Without this limit, tweets would’ve got separated. Sometimes parts would’ve got delayed or lost.
For anyone using Twitter online, the limit was arbitrary. Many find it restrictive. That said, it forces people to be pithy and advocates praise it for that. But since about 9% of all tweets in English are exactly 140 characters, people clearly struggle to trim them down.
How people have dealt with Twitter’s character limit
Many people would tweet a link offsite to somewhere with less character restrictions. TwitLonger posts the first 100 characters on your timeline and then links to the rest offsite. If you have a blog, this is the way to go for long posts. Even with a bigger character limit, Twitter can help drive traffic to your own site.
Other people make threads, building long chains by replying to their own tweets. Here’s one example I’ve linked to in a previous blog. The downside is you have to make sure each post is self-contained. It would be confusing if you end one tweet halfway through a sentence and pick it up on the next one. You have to put time into segmenting your thoughts.
Screenshotting might be the easiest and most common workaround. Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey made his own screenshot-tweet about this phenomenon. The problem is, search engines don’t crawl pictures of text. This makes it much harder to search for specific tweets.
The future of Twitter on SMS
What about those who still use Twitter over text messages? Well, most phones and mobile networks now support concatenated SMS. So in theory, a tweet could be 1,600 characters long and a user would still see it combined into one text on their phone.
Not that it matters much to Twitter. SMS users are harder to advertise to than internet users, so they’re a lower priority. Twitter’s COO Anthony Noto said, “Long term, we would hope these SMS Fast Followers will graduate to smartphone and desktop usage. As they do that, the magnitude of their usage will increase and our ability to monetize them, that will increase. But today, the monetization rate of SMS Fast Followers is going to be meaningfully lower than the monetization rate of [our current] users.”
So, it’s about the money
Yep. Twitter’s a publicly traded company, so it’s not surprising. User numbers are growing, but slowly. The bigger problem they have is a lack of engagement. That could be why the company makes it hard to know how many people have abandoned their accounts. The best report out there goes back to 2014.
Without engagement, advertisers will continue throwing money at Facebook. Their Q2 2017 ad revenue was $9.2 billion compared to Twitter’s $458.1 million. Along with Twitter’s recent attempts to stamp out online harassment, a longer character limit can prevent drop-off. If people have been driven away from the social network for any reason, Twitter isn’t doing its job. That makes it easier for Facebook to sell its high engagement rate to advertisers.
The problem is, with no character limit, Twitter could lose its unique selling point. There’d be little to separate it from other social platforms as it would no longer be the one with pithy, easily digestible content. But considering how often people hit the character limit or work around it, they had to loosen the restrictions. Whether it improves user experience or Twitter’s bottom line is still up in the air.