Will the web swallow Twitter’s plans to go ‘Beyond 140’ to 10,000 characters?

6 Jan 2016

In its fight for relevance in an increasingly volatile and crowded social media world, Twitter is considering a 10,000 character limit.

In its enduring fight for relevance in an increasingly volatile and crowded social media world, Twitter is considering introducing a 10,000-character limit in a strategy internally termed “Beyond 140”.

Twitter is understood to be planning to launch the new limit towards the end of Q1, possibly in time to mark the company’s 10th anniversary in March.

Twitter currently has a 10,000-character limit for its Direct Messages product, with the idea of allowing users to move fluidly from public to private.

However, for a company that once vowed it would never move away from its 140-character limit the move is a complete volte-face.

According to Re/Code, Twitter has been working on the strategy since September.

The idea is that, while the service won’t look any different, the 140 characters will be a call to action to further content with a 10,000 character limit. Ultimately, Twitter doesn’t want to lose the element of user engagement but at the same time it wants to allow users more flexibility in what they can say.

Twitter is also understood to be planning to make changes to its reverse chronological timeline, a core feature of the service since it began.

Twitter is scrambling for ideas, but adding to the word count of the web is not a good one

As Twitter approaches its 10th anniversary, the once-definitive social network is facing a war on many fronts.

Now a public company, it has to answer to shareholders, as well as fight for its share of the internet’s users who have increased choices in terms of social media from Facebook to Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Although it has been innovating like crazy from the launch of Vines, auto-playing video, events summaries via Moments and multiple photos in tweets, the reality is that, compared to Facebook with its 1.5bn monthly users and revenues averaging $4.5bn a quarter, Twitter is falling behind.

Twitter has 302m users and achieved annual revenues of $1.4bn in 2014. In its third quarter revenues in October, Twitter reported revenues of $569m, up 58pc year-on-year.

The key word here is mobile. 10,000 characters will not appeal to mobile users.Mobile users now represent 80,000 of monthly active users for Twitter.

For Twitter users, the 140-character limit was not only brief but lent itself to elegance and eloquence in tweeting style and short prose – brevity made zinging tweets something of an art form. In just 140 characters, diehard users learned how to hone their craft and make others laugh, cry and rage with curt style and aplomb.

So what is Twitter trying to achieve? More users obviously, but alienating core users and moving away from an original format that attracted users in the first place is not the way to go, unless the 140-character limit remains and acts as a signpost to good content.

But is Twitter tinkering with the wrong things? The problem I see is not the character limit, but the way content resonates on Twitter.

Yes, teenagers are using Instagram and Snapchat and WhatsApp rather than Twitter. In fact, some teenagers compare using Facebook to awkward family gatherings, so Twitter is not alone in its fight for relevance.

Instead of messing with its core rationale and raison d’etre – brief fast messages and information at the speed of thought – perhaps Twitter needs to focus and double down on its design and user interface instead.

Twitter’s core problem is that it is still a rapid-fire hosepipe of information, and the problem is that unless that information trends then it’s not going to stick around for very long. Unlike with Facebook, which uses algorithms cleverly to surface content that might matter to users, making it possible to discover stuff that they may not have found originally.

Twitter has a number of interfaces that people use and only a few of them are compatible with one another. While the web version and the mobile and app versions are identical, Twitter has alienated most of the original apps that were created by developers to support power users and, in fact, most power users tend to use tools like Twitter-owned Tweetdeck to make sense of the hosepipe of information.

Why Twitter has never striven to incorporate more of Tweetdeck’s functionality in its core product offering is beyond me.

With founder and CEO Jack Dorsey back at the helm, shareholders are looking for Twitter to pull something magical from the hat. 10,000 characters may or may not be the way to go.

Twitter needs to identify ways of making content resonate and stick around longer, but not by adding to the word count of the web.

Birds image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years