When Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet on March 21 2006, it was still 294 days until Steve Jobs would unveil the iPhone. There were no apps, and mobile phone messages were almost exclusively sent by text.
The limits of text messages were precisely how Dorsey and his fellow founders arrived at the 140-character limit that came to define Twitter. Before the smartphone era, tweets were designed to be sent by text, which were limited to 160 characters (the extra 20 was set aside for usernames).
In the 10 years since, we’ve all bought smartphones, and text messages have been replaced by apps. Twitter itself has also changed – adding photos, hashtags, polls, faves (now hearts) and more, but the 140-character cap has remained the same, a defining feature (if not the defining feature) of the social network that set it apart from the likes of Facebook.
Until now. On Tuesday it emerged that Twitter plans to raise the character limit on tweets, probably to 10,000. Dorsey confirmed this with a tweet of his own a few hours later defending the move.
Long tweets would probably be displayed as 140 characters with a “read more” button to see longer ones, but opponents still felt the change would ruin the magic of Twitter: hashtags were started up in protest.
But it’s also easy to see why Twitter wants to change things. “We’ve spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it,” Dorsey wrote in his own screenshotted statement (weighing in at 1,315 characters).
“Instead, what if that text…was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That’s more utility and power.”
The bigger picture is that Twitter is in trouble. Monthly users grew by just 3 million in the third quarter of last year, against 13 million a year earlier. Twitter remains lossmaking. Dorsey, who was brought back as chief executive last year, has promised to revive Twitter with a host of new initiatives.
Unlike other new ideas like Moments, the recently-launched feature that replaces the Twitter timeline with packages of tweets summarising events, extending tweets isn’t really an attempt to coax more people onto the platform. But it could keep more people on Twitter who are on Twitter already. People who might instead follow a link; post on a blogging platform; or, as Dorsey did, link to an screenshot of text.
In this way, it follows a similar pattern to other things Twitter has done to make tweets “richer” – allowing images, videos and gifs to be embedded, introducing polls and so on. Twitter was losing eyeballs to YouTube, and fixed it. Now, it is losing them to Tumblr, Medium and Facebook, and wants to fix that.
The question is whether it can accomplish this without annoying the people that love the short format. One might argue that if you don’t want more than 140 characters, don’t use them, but many other people undoubtedly will, which could turn using Twitter into a process of opening and closing tweets, rather than the streamlined feed users are used to.
Like all social networks, so much of Twitter’s product is its users, and so the success or failure of a new feature rests in how they apply it. Upping the character limit is expected by the end of March, so we won’t know whether this new idea will vastly improve Twitter or ruin it until then. What is certain is that this is one of the biggest gambles that Dorsey has taken so far.
Many Twitter devotees met the prospect with an instant backlash, and it’s easy to see why. A huge part of Twitter’s appeal, they say, is that tweets are short (if not always sweet). The cap allows users to keep up with the dozens of tweets a minute that pop up on their feeds, and it forces the public figures, pundits and comedians to keep things concise.