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Explainer: Twitter wants to make a fundamental change to its service, but why?

It is considering increasing the character limit from 140 to 10,000 characters, but why the change?

Image: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire

FOR AS LONG as it existed, Twitter has always been about one thing: brevity. Its 140 character limit has been at its core, such a limit forces users to condense a message or become more creative with what they’re saying.

Yet it could soon turn this on its head. Re/Code has reported it is considering a 10,000 character limit for tweets (the equivalent of 71 tweets), the same limit the company now allows for Direct Messages (originally it was only 140 characters long).

While Re/Code say this is for a new feature that will allow users to tweet things longer than the usual 140-character limit, whether there will be limits to how it’s used or implemented isn’t entirely clear.

Its CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, who took over duties back in October, later tweeted a screenshot explaining the logic behind this idea.

For those who can’t read it, it says:

At its core Twitter is public messaging. A simple way to say something, to anyone, that everyone in the world can see instantly. We didn’t start Twitter with a 140 character restriction. We added that early on to fit into a single SMS message (160 characters).

It’s become a beautiful constraint, and I love it! It inspires creativity and brevity. And a sense of speed. We will never lose that feeling. We’ve spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it.

Instead, what if that text… was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That’s more utility and power.

What makes Twitter, Twitter is its fast, public, live conversational nature. We will always work to strengthen that. For every person around the world, in every language. And by focusing on conversation and messaging, the majority of tweets will always be short and sweet and conversational.

We’re not going to be shy about building more utility and power into Twitter for people. As long as it’s consistent with what people want to do, we’re going to explore it.

And as I said at #flight, if we decide to ship what we explore, we’re telling developers well in advance so they can prepare accordingly.

(Also: I love tweetstorms! Those won’t go away.)

There are some important statements here. At the very least, it will mean the 140 characters will remain in some form, at least in the main news feed. What will likely happen is when you click on it, it will expand to show the 10,000 character tweet.

The other part is Dorsey describes an interactive product. Some sites allow you to highlight and tweet segments of an article so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume the same thing could apply here.

The final part is Twitter won’t shy away from making major changes to the platform, suggesting this is one of many coming up.

Why the change?

To understand why it would do this, it’s important to look at where Twitter is now.

In short, it’s not doing particularly well. User growth has slowed down – it only added three million new users in its last earnings call and has a total of 307 million monthly active users – and that has a negative impact on how advertisers and investors perceive the company.

Twitter Monthly active users Twitter's quarterly growth since the start of 2014.

Its last earnings call in October saw revenue beat expectations with $569 million but its guidance for the next three months sent shares tumbling. Its stock has been on a decline since April 2015, and currently at its lowest value since it went public ($21.89 at time of writing).

Twitter stock Twitter's stock value since January 2015. Source: Google Stocks

To solve this, Twitter has been making numerous changes to the service in a bid to bring in new users and to keep people on the platform longer.

As far back as 2014, it brought in a new profile redesign – similar to Facebook – and other recent changes like introducing a 10,000 character limit for Direct Messages, replacing favourite with likes, the launch of Periscope and Twitter Moments (its curated news portal which is only available in the US, the UK and Brazil).

Even recently, it updated the language on its policy to emphasise that it prohibits abusive behaviour and threats, although its critics say it’s how it will be enforced will be the real test.

Square IPO Jack Dorsey Jack Dorsey, who is also CEO of payments company Square, said Twitter is "not going to be shy" in introducing new features and ideas. Source: AP Photo/Richard Drew

More importantly, Twitter has played around with the definition of a tweet for a while.

In a single tweet, you can now include previews for links, up to four photos, and embed video, GIFs and Soundcloud audio files. It also offers a roundup of tweets you missed, usually consisting of four or five tweets, while you were away.

All of this is to change the overall feel of Twitter, a major problem is that new users find it difficult to get into at first, and ensure current users stay on it as long as possible.

Similar to how people spend so much time on Facebook every day, it wants to keep people on its site and app for as long as possible. If it can’t increase the user count fast enough, then the next best thing is to increase engagement.

If more is happening on Twitter and people spend longer on it, then it may convince others to join it or spend more time on it.

Twitter moments Source: Twitter Moments

The other possible reason is to help improve other products like Twitter Moments. Using curated tweets, it gives details about trending stories but a longer tweet limit may give it the opportunity to provide more detail about a story.

Every year is a significant one for Twitter, but these potential changes suggest it’s taking a more aggressive approach to solving its problems. Dorsey’s introduction already brought a number of them, but that could just be the start.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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