Why Twitter Must Expand Beyond 140 Characters

Is it the constraint of 140 characters per message that makes Twitter what it is? Or is Twitter now a broader, real-time messaging service that needn’t be constrained by a character limitation?

The most prominent third party Twitter client, TweetDeck, recently introduced a “long post” feature called Deck.ly, which brings those questions to the fore. Deck.ly allows Twitter users to post messages longer than the traditional 140 character limit. In this post I’ll argue that Twitter itself will probably soon follow and expand beyond 140 characters. Indeed, it will need to if it’s to continue expanding into the mainstream.

TweetDeck’s Deck.ly works as follows: if you post something in TweetDeck that is longer than 140 characters, other TweetDeck users will see the entire message in the app if it is not longer than “can be displayed in a double-height cell.” If it goes over that, TweetDeck users will see a ‘Read More’ link which when clicked, opens a pop-up box within TweetDeck. Meanwhile, in other third party Twitter clients and in the browser on Twitter.com, all Deck.ly messages will display in excerpted form with a link to the full message on a webpage.

Twitter No Longer About Constraints

This is clearly an experimental feature introduced by TweetDeck – indeed they’re still tweaking it. However I believe it’s a pointer to the future: Twitter will expand its self-imposed character limitation in order to make its service easier to understand for consumers.

Real-time public messaging has become a huge trend over the past couple of years. Two services have come to dominate this trend: Facebook and Twitter. Facebook’s status updates are the backbone of its social networking service. But it’s been Twitter that has captured the imagination of media and public figures for real-time messaging. Partly that’s because Facebook is essentially a closed system and so you won’t see CNN or Kanye West’s status updates (for example) unless you’re inside Facebook’s website. However it’s also because Twitter had a limitation of 140 characters right from the start, a figure that made it necessary to compose short, to-the-point status updates.

Twitter started out with ‘What are you doing?’ as its incentivizing message for users. In November 2009, it became ‘What’s happening?’. That helped broaden Twitter’s usage from “I’m eating breakfast” type messages to people tweeting about current news events, media they’re consuming, topics they’re interested in, and much more.

That Extra Click: The User Experience Issue

As noted, TweetDeck’s new “long post” feature enables users to send messages longer than 140 characters. However there is a significant user experience issue with that, in that it often introduces an extra click for the user. A lot of Twitter’s beauty as a consumer of tweets is that you can scan a bunch of tweets in one go.

But that UX paradigm had already been challenged by the gradual increase in multimedia links. Many Twitter users now post links to photos, video, blog posts, Foursquare check-ins, Facebook updates, and much more. Users need to click to see that extra content.

When Twitter launched its re-design in March last year, it adjusted to this increase of multimedia by enabling users of Twitter.com (still how the vast majority of people consume Twitter content) to view photos and video within Twitter’s website. It was a relatively small, but significant, step to lessen the burden of viewing multimedia content within Twitter.

Third party clients like TweetDeck also allow users to view photos and video in a pop-up box inside the app. TweetDeck offers a similar functionality for Deck.ly messages that are longer than can be contained in a double cell. It pops up a box within the app, meaning that users don’t need to go outside of TweetDeck to view the content.

It seems only a matter of time before Twitter enables users to view ‘long tweets’ within Twitter.com, in the same way that users can view videos and photos within the site.

Will Twitter Producers Pollute Twitter With Long Tweets?

While Twitter is positioning itself these days as more of a media consumption service, with the expectation that many more people read Twitter than write to it, the tone of the service will continue to be set by users who actively tweet. If Twitter drops the 140 character limitation, I think Twitter producers will adjust and only post longer tweets occasionally. Twitter will need to monitor that somehow, but – barring a drastic change in user behavior – Twitter users won’t stop producing short tweets just because long ones become available to them. They’ll use the long tweets sparingly, because they’ve been habituated into doing short tweets.

As for new users, Twitter will need to effectively convey in their marketing that Twitter is ideal for short-form real-time messaging. Indeed without a character limitation, Twitter will actually be easier to promote to mainstream users. It will remove an extra barrier for people to start using Twitter.

Other Languages Already Send Long Messages on Twitter

Another thing to consider that in some languages other than English, 140 characters allows for much longer updates than English users are used to. In Chinese for example, a 140 character tweet can produce a long message.

Noted Chinese artist, human rights activist and Twitter user Ai Weiwei explained in March last year that even though Twitter has a 140-character limit, Twitter users in China can easily express in-depth thoughts because the Chinese language allows Twitter users to express 140 words on Twitter and not just 140 characters.

Consider this tweet that Ai Weiwei wrote today. It easily fits in the 140 character limitation in Chinese, but the English translation is about 275 characters over that 140 character limit.

Twitter Needs to Expand Beyond 140 Characters to Continue Growing

I’m not minimizing the UX issues that Twitter will face when it expands beyond its core 140 character limit. But I do believe it’s just a matter of time before it widens the character limit. There’s no reason for Twitter to be constrained anymore, especially when the largest Internet using country on earth (China) already accommodates much longer tweets than are possible in English. Of course Twitter is banned in China and can only be used with software that routes around The Great Firewall, but still my point is valid.

Twitter is a public real-time messaging service which has gone mainstream. While it needs to keep the essential spirit of short-form messaging going, there are ways to do that in the design without using a character limitation.

If Twitter wants to continue its expansion into the mainstream, it needs to lose the 140-character limitation and just market itself as the world’s leading ‘real-time messaging service’.

What do you think, will Twitter soon expand beyond 140 characters like TweetDeck did?

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