Twitter (the company) recently caused Twitter (the network) to lose its collective mind, when the company’s CEO confirmed that they were considering dropping the 140 character limit for tweets and replacing it with a maximum of 10,000. The confirmation from @jack followed a report on Re/code. The article said that #longtweets could arrive in feeds as early as the end of this quarter.
The reactions have been both positive and negative, on Twitter and on the wider web. The big question is how removing the limit—which is, it’s not unfair to say, the defining characteristic of the network—will change Twitter and how people use it.
— Jack (@jack) 5 Janvier 2016
So how would it change the network if it happened?
Before the how, the why: Over the last several years, two factors have had a bigger impact on social networks than any others—the rise of mobile, and the need for viable revenue streams in the form of advertising.
Mobile made the feed king, and the aim of gaining as many users as possible, and keeping them engaged as long as possible, so that advertisements could be served to them, shaped the feed. The first big change happened organically, then less organically: It came from the understanding that the ideal feed has a bit of everything, not just cat pictures, articles, posts from friends, or viral videos, but all of it. A wider range of stuff began to pop up in the feed naturally at first, then eventually, the feed became aggressively optimized to provide the most interesting possible mix of all this.
The second was a realization that the feed worked best on mobile when it was self-contained. On Facebook, at least, this led to YouTube links being replaced by native Facebook videos, and links to articles on media sites becoming Instant Articles.
Facebook did some of this a little more actively—Twitter users, by following a range of people, have always sort of had a little bit of everything in the feed, and the optimization there is still suggested, for the most part. But allowing 10,000 character tweets, if it happens, will be a significant move towards a ‘self contained’ feed for Twitter—which has remained up until now, more than Facebook, a place where links are essential.
It would interact interestingly with the conversational nature of the network (a nature which developed in large part thanks to the 140 character limit). Maybe more so than other other changes Twitter has made, this one will have an impact on the company’s core users—call them what you want, basically the people, many of them in and around the media world, who are on it all day, often using it to post links and discuss them.
People, as @jack pointed out, had already found ways to bypass the character limit, posting screenshots as text, allowing them to fit more of the conversation in the feed, or tweetstorming, which permits more sustained arguments
While there’s certainly the risk that something would be lost (brevity, wit, etc.), at the same time, it could have a positive effect on how these conversations around content work. Maybe if the linked-to thing lived in the feed instead, it would make the conversation easier to follow, more inclusive, and ultimately better than it is now. The hard-core users have grown used to the conventions of conversations on Twitter, but this could potentially make it easier for a broader audience to follow things, helping the network gain ground in its efforts to gain and retain users who aren’t going to be on it all day.
And, it probably won’t wholly alter the way people experience Twitter, because odds are solid that if they do go ahead with this, tweets will continue to be limited by default to 140 characters, and that ‘bonus content’ would be unlocked only by clicking on them. That would maybe be a more subtle change—it would make it possible for things to be different on the network, but it wouldn’t force it the way it would if one day you woke up to a Twitter feed comprised entirely of a three page screed from Marc Andreessen.
What about brands?
This change, if it goes through, would be less than likely to result in the average branded Twitter post to suddenly growing in length exponentially, particularly if tweets remain capped at 140 characters until a user clicks to read more—there would need to be a compelling reason for people to click, and, even if there are a lot of times when it seems like it would be nice to have a few extra characters, the majority of marketing messages are probably better off brief.
However, there’s the chance that it will allow a different type of post to be included in brands’ repertoire. Especially for brands that rely on content marketing, longer form content—the type of stuff that generally lives on a blog—could be posted to Twitter directly, and could potentially reach a wider audience there than it would if a click-through were required. Even for B2C brands that typically are less in the business of writing long content could include the types of announcements that go on Linkedin or Medium.
And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, it could make customer service on social media a good deal easier. For many or most people trying to address an issue on Twitter, a back and forth of @replies is the easiest way to get things done, but it quickly becomes difficult to do that in 140 characters. If the limit is lifted, you no longer have to request that people DM you to talk about things in a less abbreviated way. It’s both an opportunity—if fans can reach you the way they want to, the odds of satisfaction are higher—and a challenge, as conversations that would usually happen in the privacy of the longer-form DM are going to be had in the public eye.
It will be exciting to see how else brands and users will take advantage of their 9,860 new characters, if and when Twitter hands them over.