Will #beyond140 save Twitter?

By Simon Ensor
Social Media 28.01.2016

At the beginning of 2016 the Twittersphere erupted with cries of anguish and concern. Twitter’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has added rocket fuel to rumours of an increased character limit (in a series of tweets of course) a message addressing the problem of users taking screenshots of text and then tweeting these screenshots. Dorsey asked the question:
“what if that text…..was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That’s more utility and power.”

Within the same mini Tweet storm he also mentioned that the social network did not start with a 140 character limit and that the real value of Twitter is the almost real time conversation, not the character limit. Still unconfirmed, this would be the most significant alteration to Twitter in its 9 year history and has unsurprisingly caused many to ponder if it is the right move.

Why Make the Change?

It is no secret that Twitter is trying to make changes. Last year saw unrest at Twitter HQ with Chris Sacca’s open letter, Dick Costolo stepping down as CEO and Jack Dorsey taking over. In fact, Twitter has had a pretty rough 12 months. Not only has their leader of 5 years left the business, but they have also experienced stagnating growth figures and a stock price that has steadily decreasing since April 2015 and is now at its lowest ever figure at below $20 per share. This week has seen even more problems with 4 executive team members leaving the company.  As a result, it is obvious that the platform needs to make some major changes (these exec members leaving may actually help in the long term) if they are to compete long term with the likes of Facebook and the skyrocketing Instagram.

Twitter and Jack Dorsey need to grow Twitter and demonstrate that they are attracting new users in order to satisfy shareholders and the stock market as a whole. Their platform in 2015 felt dated, with the same reverse chronological feed and a user base that was either in or out. Whilst neither of these has changed, since Dick Costolo’s resignation (*ahem* ousting) Twitter have been clearly trying to show that they are adapting. In the second half of 2015 they released Twitter moments to make finding content easier, controversially changed their ‘favourite’ button to ‘like’ and increased the DM character limit to 10,000 but increasing the character count in tweets would be the most fundamental and deep rooted change to how Twitter works. It must be remembered that Twitter has over 300 million users, many of which are dedicated to the platform. Their platform is also firmly entrenched with other media, most notably news outlets, who use the platform to create conversation around topics via hashtags. What makes it tricky is satisfying the stock market, as we discussed in a previous post about when social networks IPO and satisfying your already loyal userbase whilst attracting new ones.

We actually think that whilst 10,000 characters makes it far easier for new users to get to grips with Twitter this is also a move to increase the amount of native content on the platform, but more on this in a bit. Let’s look at the pros and cons of increasing the character count for tweets.

The Upside of #beyond140

This concept has experienced a shaky start. The #beyond140 hastag on Twitter demonstrates just how shaky this start has been. Spoiler alert – there are a few disgruntled Twitter fanatics. When recode’s speculation was somewhat backed up by Dorsey’s tweet, one publication immediately branding it as a character crisis of massive proportions. However, regardless of the ‘haters’ there are some very large positives for Twitter:

You can still see 140 Character Tweets

Some of the negative reactions surround #beyond140 have been in regards to the potential of feeds being dominated by longer tweets. We hope *pray* that reports are true that #beyond140 will come with an expand button rather than Tweets automatically displaying all the characters within them. If these rumours are true, feeds will appear relatively similar with only the first 140 characters being displayed, giving users the option to expand if they want to read on. The positive here is that if people want their followers to continue reading then they will have to retain the brevity currently in use for 140 character tweets, satisfying those that are in love with this format.

More Detailed Native Content

One of Twitter’s main attractions is its unrivalled ability to provide almost real time news updates. The issue for Twitter is that in order to get more detail on news stories users will click on a link, thus navigating away from the platform. Yes, social links usually correspond to single visits to websites with users navigating back to their precious feeds in order to consume more of their social content but over the past years Facebook has made great efforts to build higher walled gardens to keep content on the platform, most notably via Facebook video. #beyond140 represents an opportunity for Twitter to further capitalise on their stranglehold of real time news. This update will encourage an increase in native content for Twitter, increasing time on the platform and encouraging individuals, businesses  and organisations to publish their longer form content directly to Twitter. We are certain that this will prove a welcome temptation for content marketers but will it be enough to attract users that are not interested in content marketing?

Critically for Twitter this provides an opportunity to increase the tools available for users to search for content, something that Jack Dorsey eludes to when tweeting “Text that could be searched” and backed up by the introduction of Twitter Moments in 2015. Hashtags and Moments already allow users to filter content but the idea that news outlets or brands could be given a ‘verified’ status would help Twitter in their fight against potentially misleading news and further cement their status as the number one platform for up to date news. Before you jump to arms, this does happen to an extent in the news category of Moments, but it could be a hell of a lot better.

In an amusing article for the Guardian, Leigh Alexander and Jeff Jarvis point out that mindlessly scrolling through 140 character tweets that give half information is not a particularly engaging experience. More native content and detail on subjects may well increase engagement with users. We completely agree – clearly there will be issues with people tweeting 10,000 characters of nonsense but that was what the unfollow option is for.

No More Out Of Context Single Tweets

Tweet storms have a critical flaw. A single tweet does not give the full story and without taking the type of screenshot that Dorsey refers to, retweeting a single tweet will often leave those not privy to the whole conversation jumping to incorrect conclusions. An extended character limit will help prevent out of context tweets from being taken as gospel, even though a subsequent (unseen) tweet may change the context entirely.

Key Stats For Marketers

For social media marketers and content marketers alike #beyond140 comes with the attractive potential of a more complex analytics platform providing information such as dwell time on tweets. It may not be a revolutionary step in analytics but could help to further encourage businesses to publish longer form content on the platform.

More Visual Content

At the moment if you want to post a picture to Twitter it eats up just over 20 characters, if you want a link with that photo you may have to shell out even more of your precious characters. This can be limiting for the amount of visual content posted to Twitter – indeed Twitter have been trailing their competitors for a long time in regards to displaying visual content! #beyond140 may allow users to post more than one photo or, dare we say it, create albums a la Facebook. Considering that video content is by far the most popular type of content on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest revolve around their imagery it would not come as a surprise if Twitter use #beyond140 to join the club…

The Downside

Twitter has over 300 million users. The Twittersphere is made up of near fanatical users many of which Twitter may lose if they increase the character count. Have a read through the #beyond140 reactions on Twitter, the general consensus from current users is not great. They want to keep the status quo:

They like the format, they like how succinct it is, they love the constraint..

There is a considerable downside for Twitter here, they risk losing everything. Making such a fundamental change could see the platform change forever and a mass exodus without actually achieving the goal of the attracting new users. We actually think this is unlikely to happen, but it is a risk nonetheless. The biggest problem is that it fundamentally changes what a lot of people like about Twitter.

Twitter Rants

Twitter rants can be entertaining, fast paced and ridiculous. Dorsey even said in his announcement that he loves Twitter Storms and that these would not go away. However, Twitter rants are popular because they have to be kept reasonably succinct. Imagine multiple 10,000 character tweets. For those that love Twitter rants this could be the irresistible temptation. With a heavy sense of irony, Twitter rants could turn into unreadable open letters like Chris Sacca’s diatribe last year. Just imagine what Kanye West will do with 10,000 characters. Musical genius he may be but he is also devoid of any thought that is not centred around himself and his self proclaimed awesomeness. 10,000 characters gives him an awful lot of space to spread his idiotic thoughts….glad I got that one off my chest. Maybe 10,000 character Twitter rants aren’t such a bad idea after all!

The point is that Twitter’s character constraints help to restrain those who like to rant. On top of this, arguments have the potential to become ridiculously long which creates a major problem for Twitter; people won’t bother following them. Twitter arguments are entertaining because they are short and to the point, often leaving a huge amount of ambiguity. Give people 10,000 characters and you give them the opportunity to bore everyone to death.

Be Prepared for People to Abuse It

When recode helped break the story, they mentioned that Twitter would be looking at ways to limit the amount of @mentions in a single tweet in order to avoid spam. This is a good thing. 10,000 characters would leave a lot of room for abuse. With the popularity of content marketing at the moment one can expect the whole industry to re ignite their interest in Twitter. Suddenly every tweet will have to be expanded (if that is how they design it) in order to read the article that has been produced. If as we expect it would be an expandable tweet, it means that there would be a considerable amount of space that is initially hidden to users, in which you could add hundreds of hashtags. Just a couple of examples of how a 10,000 character tweet could be abused.

In addition, it would be interesting to see if Google were to put a cap on the character limit for tweets that they display in their SERPs – the likelihood is that they would show the first 140 characters like the meta description of their other results. Which brings into question whether indexable tweets would lead the spammy side of the SEO world to look at keyword stuffing and hidden content on Twitter.

Where does this leave Twitter, its users and prospects?

We are firmly in a state of limbo with Twitter. At first this rumour seemed like a knee jerk reaction to a plummeting share price but then we started to come round to the idea. Remember that Twitter have not actually confirmed this is going ahead yet so all of this may well be for nowt. If they are to go forward it requires far more work than just increasing the character count, multiple changes need to be made to their platform at the same time in order for it to work:

– The reverse chronological order would need to be thought about, with a ‘new tweets’ button that automatically scrolls up to the newest tweet. Much like Facebook does on mobile. Otherwise you may read a long article and then have to tire your poor old thumb out scrolling up for your next dose of tweets.
– An editing function would have to be included, no questions asked.
– Hashtags and Moments are a poor excuse for more considered content delivery.

It’s great that Twitter are trying to address their issues, it is critical for their longer term survival. We fear though that they face a much larger problem than the format of their current platform, which is already colossal in nature. Their biggest problem stems around the fact that these changes are being made to attract new users, but do people outside of the Twittersphere even know this change is happening? To top it all off, do they even care?

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