Twitter’s new 280-character limit: bad business or new paradigm?

By Simon Ensor
Social Media 02.10.2017

For a long time now, Twitter’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has been toying with the idea of scrapping their famous 140-character limit in favour of something a little less restrictive. In January 2016, the hashtag #beyond140 was doing the rounds after Dorsey posted a Twitter rant about the use of screenshots to convey more text on Twitter, asking the question “what if text… was actually text?” Rumours then began spreading about the limit increasing to a whopping 10,000 characters, prompting Dorsey to snap out of his musings and reassure everyone that the 140-character limit was here to stay.

However, four months later Twitter started increasing the limit by discounting links and photographs in the overall character count of a tweet. But for all intents and purposes, the official limit has remained at 140 characters and users have continued to scratch their heads over resourceful word choices. That is, until now…

Trying something new

On the 26th of September, Twitter announced that they will be “trying something new with a small group, and increasing the character limit to 280.” This marks the end of an 11-year rule for the company’s staple 140-character limit, and constitutes one of the biggest (potential) changes to the the format of the platform. In other words: this is a big deal. After all, the 140-limit has been integral to Twitter’s identity from the very start, symbolising the platform’s ethos of brevity and economy, not to mention a leading factor in Twitter’s popularity with real time news.

Last week, Yellowball’s Managing Director Simon Ensor was interviewed by global news outlet, TRT World. Let’s see his opinion on the move:

As to be expected, the reaction so far has been largely negative we assume Twitter had already braced themselves for the meme-fuelled outrage of their infamously vociferous user base – but a negative reaction isn’t always a bad sign. Major changes to social networks are almost always met with anger and upset from users: sometimes this signals a bad business move, and sometimes it signals the beginning of a new paradigm. The question is, which is it that we are dealing with in this case?

Why the sudden change?

While in retrospect Dorsey’s ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ at the beginning of 2016 makes the new character limit seem inevitable, many commentators and users have been left confused as to why it was implemented. The official line from Twitter seems to be that the increased character limit aims to make Twitter more user-friendly. Data released by Twitter shows that 9% of tweets in English hit the 140-character limit, compared to just 0.4% of tweets in Japanese.

According to Aliza Rosen, Twitter’s product manager: “our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people tweeting in English, but it is not for those tweeting in Japanese”. This is mainly because you can convey more information in a single character of Japanese than you can in a single character of English, which essentially gives the language more space to play around with – and more space means less frustration.

Ultimately, if users no longer have to resort to truncating words and ‘cramming’ them into 140-character tweets, Twitter would be a lot less frustrating to use. It is in this sense that Twitter’s stated incentives aren’t commercial, as they are simply aiming to tackle an identified problem relating to user experience. That said, Twitter’s performance in recent months tells a different story.

User base and share price

Take a look at the facts: Twitter’s user base is way behind those of Facebook and Instagram (the former having over 2 billion users, and the latter having over 700 million) with their earnings report from July reporting just 328 million active users. In addition, this user base is showing signs of stagnation having failed to grow since the previous quarter. In the two months since, shares have declined by 15%, closing at $16.59 by the time the new limit had been announced. So it’s no secret that Twitter are struggling to increase their user base, and it’s also no secret that Twitter have yet to turn a profit.

Having always struggled to adequately monetise the platform, Twitter have lost over $2 billion since 2011 and are yet to pull themselves out of a net loss. The bottom line is that Twitter needs to grow its user base, or else it risks losing investor confidence. Even Twitter comes close to acknowledging this in their official announcement:

“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… We’re hoping fewer Tweets run into the character limit, which should make it easier for everyone to Tweet.”

So the new 280-character limit is viewed by many as an attempt to provoke engagement and draw in new users. Whilst user experience is an important part of these changes, there are clearly significant commercial incentives at play here. Of course, It’s unlikely that they will ever be able to compete with the likes of Facebook, but even a small amount of growth would help guarantee the company’s long-term survival.

Twitter must face up to its financial situation and adapt accordingly, because they will not be able to save themselves without making some drastic changes to their platform: and what’s more drastic than removing something at the very core of Twitter’s brand? In all, Jack Dorsey is probably willing to risk short-lived outrage from Twitter’s current users in order to attract new users and revitalise the platform’s user growth.

Regardless of whether or not the new character limit is a good business move, one must doff the metaphorical hat to Mr. Dorsey. CEO of Twitter is a difficult position to be in right now, and whilst change is of course necessary at Twitter we must not underestimate the likely bureaucracy, resistance and risks involved with such a move. Plus, he handled the initial outrage very well, tweeting that it all “comes with the job”.

Will the new limit improve Twitter’s performance?

There’s no telling at such an early stage how the increased character limit will impact Twitter’s market performance and user base, but the initial impact has not been great. According to the Financial Times, “the stock price rose a little over 1 per cent in after-hours trading, but that followed a 2.3 per cent decline during the official trading day.” Why the market panic? Generally speaking, it’s not yet clear whether or not any growth is guaranteed by implementing a 280-character limit: there is no real demand for the change by their current user base, nor is there any proof that it will have any real impact on engagement.

On the other hand, Twitter have nothing to lose by revamping an old format that wasn’t doing anything to bring in new users. 140-characters is an arbitrary figure plucked from the prehistoric days of SMS messaging, and a longer character limit does seem more in line with current sensibilities. Perhaps improving user experience and reducing frustration will see a steady rise in their user base in the next quarter – there’s simply no way of telling until we have data from the initial tests. Given the company’s unfortunate financial history, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing substantial profits any time soon.

Will Twitter ever be the same again?

At this point, it seems unclear as to when and for whom the new character limit will take effect, as well as how users should know that they have been selected for testing. Twitter have also declined to say how many users will be included in the test. But in the wake of its announcement, many users and commentators have expressed concerns that a less restrictive character limit will simply encourage longer tweets, compromising the sense of brevity that is the essence of Twitter. Likewise, current users have voiced concerns of two general types (albeit with a very sassy tone):

  • Tweets will become, on average, longer and harder to read.
  • Tweeting will be less creative and fun when writing succinctly isn’t necessary.

Twitter have reassured users that brevity is still an important part of their platform, even with a slightly longer character limit. “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” states Rosen, “but we tried this, saw the power of what it will do, and fell in love with this new, still brief, constraint.” Jack Dorsey, eager to convince users that this isn’t actually the end of the world, claims that the average tweet length will “probably average out just above 140 (characters).” And they both have a point. People won’t be using all 280-characters every time they tweet just because of the new limit – after all, despite having more space for information, the average length of tweets in Japanese is just 15 characters. 280 characters is still a limit, and a low one at that!

Only time will tell

The main benefit of the new character limit is that users will be able to write tweets quickly and easily without having to go back and whittle them down to 140 characters. Though many users enjoy this process and its creative benefits, appeasing those users would make no difference to the size of Twitter’s overall user base – for Twitter to survive, things have to change. But is this small change really enough to reel in hordes of new users, or is this the first part in a long series of big changes for the Twitter platform? As usual, only time will tell…

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