The big news from social last week was Twitter’s announcement of an increase in character limits - but only for some users. Cue endless bickering about why so-and-so got it but such-and-such didn’t, and jokes about whether giving Donald Trump more characters is wise. Yet despite all the jokes and the gripes, and Twitter asserting it’s what we’ve been waiting for, the resounding response was a big fat “meh” from the Twitterverse.
139 characters pic.twitter.com/WkfdXL8oLh
— Caitlin Kelly (@caitlin__kelly) 26 September 2017
Twitter had cried wolf before; previous talk of increasing limits to as much as 10,000 characters have been swirling since at least 2016. Certainly, since Jack Dorsey took back the helm from Dick Costolo in 2015, change has been in the air at Twitter - we’ve seen the yellow favourite star turn into a red-hearted like, seen a new way to handle the timeline, and heard the good news that rich media no longer counts towards your 140 characters.
It’s that last change that has us scratching our head at the new one: communication is moving increasingly towards visual, not text-based, means, and the Twitterverse had already devised its own workarounds to 140 character limits (font-based graphics, screenshots of notes). So does the character limit even matter anyway? And why now?
Delving into Twitter’s own staff announcing the increase, we see some broad themes emerging: it’s about language and expression, they say; about removing barriers to usage. Analysing the social responses over the last week, we add three more: the purpose of the platform, the increasing use of visuals, and quality of content.
Twitter wants to make it easier to express yourself
On its official blog, Twitter says the increase in characters is designed to help those in Western languages express themselves more clearly; apparently, the complaints about character limitations aren’t heard over in Asia, where a single character can express so much more.
Twitter’s own research compared Japanese tweets to English, and found that the average characters used in Japanese are 15, while English is 34, and a much higher percentage (9%) of English tweets hit against the full limit. They write: “We want every person around the world to easily express themselves on Twitter, so we're doing something new: we're going to try out a longer limit, 280 characters, in languages impacted by cramming (which is all except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean).”
Certainly, it will be interesting to see if more characters does lead to more free expression. In the old way, any lengthy expression was either given via a “tweetstorm” - a long list of linked tweets - or by sharing a screenshot of the lengthy text. More characters will make longer text easier to digest and follow, for sure.
Born from text message limitations, Twitter’s 140 character brevity turned into an art form. Dubbed “micro-blogging”, it was intended to be the “SMS of the internet” - a way to send quick-fire messages to people instead of emails and so on. Founded in 2006, by 2012 it has more than 100 million users posting 340 million tweets a day, handling an average of 1.6 billion search queries per day.
literally my only talent was being able to think of tweets exactly 140 characters long. i don't know if I will be able to alter this to 280.
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) 26 September 2017
Recently, Twitter became less of a messaging system and more of a real-time discussion of events as they happen; on the day of the 2016 US presidential election, it proved to be the largest source of breaking news, with 40 million election-related tweets sent by 10pm ET that day. (Source)
A tweet is a concise distillation of opinion, so we wonder what impact more space will have on this core essence. AdAge quotes Noah Mallin, head of content at MEC, saying Twitter will want to think hard before giving even more characters, “otherwise it becomes Medium and we are blogging instead of micro-blogging”.
Removing the barriers to engaging with Twitter
Twitter has watched as Instagram first grew, then overtook it, as the preferred medium of expression for millennials. And more than 91% of Instagram posts are photos. Twitter’s own removal of rich media counting towards your 140 went some way to helping bridge the gap, but often a Twitter post will be automatically sent from an Instagram profile.
With 74% of social media marketers using visual assets in their social media marketing, ahead of blogs (68%) and videos (60%) (HubSpot), this is a real sticking point. Instagram drives the most engagement per post compared to any social network – 84 times more than Twitter, 54 times more than Pinterest and 10 times more than Facebook (Source). And tweets with images are 150% more likely to get Retweets than text-only tweets.
Writes Arstechnica: “The 140-character limit is Twitter's defining feature and also its most controversial. Critics say that it makes the service confining and unfriendly to new users. Defenders say that enforced brevity is what makes the service so useful.”
Certainly, with stagnating user growth, Twitter needs to find new ways to get people both signing up for and engaging on the platform to drive more ad revenue. Yet the more vocal users weren’t asking for longer chances to express; they were crying out for an edit button.
Twitter users: Stop racists, stop hate crime, stop bots, we want a chronological timeline and an edit function…
Twitter: 280 characters!
— this weeks ⭐ baker (@bicknaker) 26 September 2017
Twitter themselves say that “in all markets, when people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting.” Engagement is the key when it comes to a social platform, so it will be interesting to see if longer tweets increase the lifespan of a tweet from 18 minutes.
Does an increase in characters make a difference?
Was the move driven by fear of the stock market? Since its IPO, Twitter has never made money, and its share price is plummeting, says The Atlantic: “Almost four years after debuting on Wall Street at $44, Twitter’s shares linger at $16. The company has never turned a profit.” More users and more engagement will equal more ad revenue and, theoretically, profit.
But maybe text is not where Twitter should be focussing right now; the world is concentrating more on rich media as the importance of the visual web grows. While trying to create a niche as the longer text-based microblogging platform is laudable, Facebook will always have that position sewn up. Twitter’s brevity was its purpose. Some see the 140 limit as a challenge, inventing their own ways to be concise; will Twitter lose something of its very essence with this change?
This could turn out to be a test of niche vs expression. Will we soon find out if people really do use different platforms for different purposes, or if one all-encompassing platform will do the same trick? Time will tell on this, as well as the success of this #Twitter280 experiment.
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