Is Twitter about to banish brevity? The 140 character world limit has been the social network’s trademark since its launch in 2006, but rumours are rife that it is working on a new product that will allow users to send longer tweets.
Only last month Twitter relaxed its word limit on direct messages, and more changes have been expected as the stuttering social network attempts to bridge the gap between its 300 million global users and the 1.4 billion enjoyed by its biggest rival Facebook.
But with the 140 characters being so intrinsic to Twitter’s brand identity, the launch of ‘140 Plus’ – as it has been dubbed by the Wall Street Journal – would represent a significant shift away from its USP, and perhaps even invite accusations that it is suffering an existential crisis.
We spoke to industry experts to find out whether the rumours sounded credible and, if true, what the move would mean for Twitter and its key source of revenue: advertisers’ relationship with users.
Felim McGrath, senior trends analyst at GlobalWebIndex
Dropping the 140-character limit may leave Twitter without one of its defining characteristics but this is an essential move if the platform wants to keep growing. Twitter has given itself a hard time for what it called disappointing levels of growth in active usage over recent quarters but look at visitation rates and things are much more positive. Twitter draws around twice as many monthly visitors (many of whom don’t even have an account) as active users.
Ditching the 140-character limit can only be a good thing for these visitors, who are drawn to Twitter because of its reputation as a breaking-news platform, a public forum for discussion and a portal to updates from celebrities and brands. Longer posts mean more information and more in-depth news coverage, and more opportunities to draw in and monetise visitors.
Jonathan Grubin, founder and chief executive of social gifting outfit SoPost
It’s true that 140 characters is what Twitter originally became known for, but that’s because it started out as a SMS-based service, where 140 characters was the maximum level you were able to type.
However, as we move more towards smartphone [and desktop] usage of Twitter, this limit seems a bit arbitrary. Twitter is in a much more mature place now, so no reason to be so confined.
Obviously there are questions around user experience if they do choose to go beyond 140 characters, but I’m sure Twitter has a very good team looking at all that.
Chris Hassell, chief executive and co-founder of creative agency Ralph
I worry it’s going to get confusing as apparently they’re playing with the idea of not including user names, or not including URLs etc. It’s one of its defining features and contributed to it’s success, without it isn’t it going back to essentially being a big public chat room with a load if people shouting? People had to at least put some level of thought into what they were saying and allows readers to skim through a level playing field.
It could potentially become a more intimidating a platform for users starting out as they literally have more freedom and therefore more decisions. That cap at 140 characters gave people what seemed like a very comfortable goal to fill, anything more whilst at first seeming like a great limitation finally lifted could actually turn away current and potential users.
Brands will fill it with more overly inflated crap without a purpose. For a creative agency the limit is a beautiful thing. Good copy should be able to grab anyone’s attention in 140 characters, it’s actually quite luxurious when your editing properly!
Daniel Price, head of social operations at Lost Boys
It seems that this rumour is coming from multiple people who are 'familiar with the company’s plans' - including Jack Dorsey, wannabe chief executive. Twitter are running an idea up the flag pole through back channels to gauge reactions. We should take the story with a pinch of salt until we see a full launch.
Twitter is synonymous with its character limit - 140 characters that prompt brevity and creativity. What does removing this limit add to the product? Well, execution will be everything, but it seems not a whole lot. It’s a step towards a more Facebook-like product - and it won’t do what Twitter wants it to do. The change is unlikely to impact on Twitter’s revenue position - and will negatively impact on the user experience. Twitter is real-time, and the way people use it is all about the feed. We have limited info at the moment about how this might develop, but if this is what it seems, we should have concerns about Twitter’s plans for the future.
Removing or increasing the character limit may at first blush seem to be appealing to brands - but in reality an increased character count won’t help them drive reach or engagement. Limits are a great framework in which to develop creative and engaging content. However, this new direction could benefit brands in the area of customer service - where more space is useful. I would be fascinated to see Twitter make this leap.
Paolo Nieddu, managing partner at AnalogFolk London
Turn and face the strange' as David Bowie once said. Things change.They always have done and they always will. Just look at all of the other big social platforms.
Twitter with more than 140 characters will certainly be strange. Why? Maintaining its USP since its inception has ingrained a culture of word economy and succinctness to how we communicate. It’s appeal is its inherent limitations.
Removing this takes away the magic of Twitter. And turns it into...well, Facebook. It will fundamentally alter the experience.
The opportunity? Appeal to new users.
The risk? The 140+ approach will get abused.
The result? The current user base will walk away in their droves from a social platform that was a central part of their digital lives.
After that, there is no going back.
Stuart Avery, managing director social media entertainment agency Rumpus Room
If you were to double the number of characters for instance, you’d just lose the USP. The limiting factor is good as the longer things are, you find the less that people engage.”
If I was to do a campaign in such an environment, then I’d advise clients to keep things shorter, and maybe try to focus on images for messaging. In a digital world you find that people’s concentration span tends to be less."
Chris Pearce, co-chief executive at TMW Unlimited
A vocal minority have already made it clear that doing so would basically turn it into another Facebook overnight and that the world will end shortly afterwards. While I feel that the enforced brevity of thinking, language and output on Twitter is a redeeming feature (and curtails some of the more fatuous opinion venting) it’s also true to say that permitting longer form content on Twitter presents a richer canvas for brands to amplify key moments, as they happen. As ever, the crucial trade off will be how mainstream users react (engage or turn off) versus the increased opportunity for brands to take part in the conversation. It would certainly be a bold move for interim CEO Jack Dorsey to remove the trademark limit but guess what, much like Winter I reckon it’s coming!
Wayne Brown, managing director at GreyPOSSIBLE
"At its heart, twitter is all about brevity, 'micro blogging' and brevity is a beautiful constraint. It makes people think harder about what they say, which as Mark Twain knew, is always a good. This has in turn made everyone into better writers, looking for the perfect editorial headline – that captures the attention and makes you want to delve deeper. It’s generated a generation of lovers of snackable content. The character limit itself has transcended the platform, and has passed into culture – Shakespeare’s plays have even been condensed into 140 characters. The character limit distinguishes Twitter from it’s competitors and is a core part of it’s USP, so they should consider changing it very carefully. That said practically speaking the character limit can get eaten up very quickly when adding hashtags and links, so maybe it should limit to the message and not the content…. I think I’d rather read this as a tweet for sure."
Tim Pritchard, head of social at Manning Gottlieb OMD
Twitter have managed to remain relevant by constantly evolving themselves to suit user behaviours and increase time spent within the platform. Users and brands are already breaking the shackles of 140 characters and expressing themselves with ever richer content in the form of GIFs/Vines/Videos but the 140 character limit is the complete essence of what makes Twitter unique. Requiring succinct, pithy updates has led to it’s role as the channel for ‘real-time’ and immediacy so to increase it may cause some of this to be lost. Given the large and growing percentage of Twitter consumed through mobile it would seem counter intuitive to increase the text limit and increase the space given over to each update.