From 280 characters to where? Thoughts on Twitter’s joy of brevity and who benefits from a character limit increase

Around 15 years ago one of the toughest elements of my first job as a journalist on local commercial radio was script timings.

For anybody not familiar with the workings of an early noughts newsroom, the daily challenge was this: news bulletins lasted around three and a half minutes and needed about 8–10 stories plus weather and jingles. This meant scripts were strictly capped on timings.

Stories with audio were 35 seconds max while straight reads were anywhere between 10 and 15 seconds. Packing all the information into a set space of time — as counted by the much-maligned Lotus Notes — was an art form. Often words were hacked around and tweaks made to ensure time limits were kept to.

Some years later, at an early day Twitter meetup, somebody asked me how I managed to get my Tweets to fit perfectly into 140 characters. Simple, I replied. It was the radio journalist in me.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot after the news (in 280 characters, naturally) that Twitter is testing doubling the character limit, allowing an extra 50 words or so. As CEO Jack Dorsey Tweeted, a small change but a big deal that marks a huge pivot at the heart of Twitter.

It’s well-known that Twitter’s 140 character limit was set due to SMS limits on mobile phones. At the time, Jack, Biz and Ev envisaged text message would be the main way people would update their feed. How times change.

Since then, Twitter has been steadily playing with the character limit, resulting in a much more pleasant user experience.

Multimedia and user handles have all been paired back and removed from the limit, which has been a huge boon to any social media manager attempting to turn around a reactive Tweet only to find their perfectly crafted copy is two characters too long due to the accompanying image.

And now the next logical step. More characters.

As with any major change to a platform, there’s a lot of angry and mocking people, which is so commonplace it shouldn’t even be classified as news. Almost every major change to a social platform is normally accompanied by outrage before most people get used to it and forget they were ever angry in the first place.

But unlike other changes, there’s one main question I can’t find an answer to: “Why?”

This question is closely followed by asking who benefits. Usually, even with initially unpopular moves such as algorithmic changes to the news feed, it’s quite obvious why the change has been made, but it’s hard to work out exactly who 280 characters benefits.

It’s unlikely to pull in new users: if they don’t already Tweet in 140 characters they’re probably not going to Tweet in 280 characters. The same for casual users and lurkers. Top level influencers and brands may welcome the opportunity for excessive verbosity but these are already heavy users, and an extra 50 words is unlikely to bring in an influx of new users to follow these online celebrities.

Frequent thread writers may be happy but that’s not going to stop them typing over 20 Tweets as they expand a theory better expressed in blog prose. And it’s not a function I’ve ever heard an advertiser express a wish for, even if they’re unlikely to turn down the length.

As you can tell, I’m also in the group who complain about a change to a service I love, largely because 140 characters really stretches the best from any good copywriter. It’s a test of skills to have creative limited by brevity. Expand it and you change the nature of the communication.

We’ll all come to accept the changes — we always do — but those extra 50 words will make a big difference to Twitter. People will complain — we always do with change — but will undoubtedly start using the extra characters on offer. It’s in our nature. As a former sub-editor I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t misread a 750 word limit instruction as 900 words. We all need editors. Somewhere, there’s another sub reading this copy and tutting as I’ve used five words where one will do.

And that’s what I liked about 140 character Twitter. It acted as a very unforgiving editor, forcing you to be direct, clear and to the point. It forced even non-linguists among us to edit and consider sentence construction. As anybody who works in the communications field will tell you, less is most definitely more.

In recent years Twitter has been quietly adding some impressive capabilities. From an advertiser’s perspective, their creative formats allow for more in-depth storytelling than some other platforms, while their pivot to focus more on current events played to the platform’s core strength and hinted at a wider vision for what Twitter could become.

Extending 140 characters though. It doesn’t seem — on the face of it — to solve any problem, other than the fact English speakers use more words than Japanese speakers. I may be wrong, and I’d love for Twitter to pull this into one much larger benefit.

At the end of the day, we’ll all probably get the 280 character roll out and it’ll be fine and we’ll all forget what the fuss was about. Even if, like me, you prefer the brevity and creativity of 140 characters, the world will keep turning, Twitter will keep running and everybody will eventually come to accept it as the new normal.

But as to whether it will encourage more users or advertisers, and whether it’ll stop the abuse that can permeate the platform, I doubt it’ll change anything. 280 characters will get the headlines, but the really effective changes to the platform will probably get much less fanfare.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.