Twitter’s mooted 10,000 character tweet limit reflects its personality crisis

Twitter is “considering” a move towards a 10,000 character limit for tweets, according to an article by Kurt Wagner on Re:code

The post cited ‘multiple sources’ but is somewhat speculative. The short story is that Twitter is likely to roll out longer tweets by the end of Q1, that there will be a ‘read more’ button, and that none of this has been finalised so it might never happen. 

But it probably will. The move towards longer tweets is logical when you dig into the detail. 

Twitter has some previous form when it comes to 10,000 characters. Last August it increased the character limit for direct messages to that amount. It wouldn’t take much to rework this for public tweets.

It could also be a commercial goldmine, though from a brand perspective it might be the final nail in Twitter’s USP coffin, and I worry about where it will go from here. 

Identity confusion

It used to be super straightforward with Twitter: rapid fire status updates, the size of text messages, perfect for the TL;DR generation. So simple. 

What would you say its USP is today? What will it be in six months? I think it has gradually lost its sense of self. Its points of differentiation have been eroded and homogenised over time.

Twitter’s product development has to some degree mirrored the evolution of the smartphone, with users now able to post updates that include images, videos, gifs and more besides. 

The trouble is, this has fundamentally changed Twitter’s core experience over the last few years. 

You used to see a column of maybe 7-10 text-only tweets without needing to scroll. Nowadays the majority of tweets seem to contain some kind of media. Sometimes this adds real value, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. Now you might only see two tweets at any one time.

Longer tweets would be another seismic shift in Twitter’s user experience. How many big changes can it make without losing its identity completely?

It’s worth pointing out that existing users usually bridle whenever a product is changed, and often with Twitter it’s a case of a tweetstorm in a teacup. It’s actually a good problem to have, as nobody criticises a product that they don’t care about. 

However, if a product slowly becomes unrecognisable from its original incarnation, then it may have an adverse effect on usage patterns. Some people will flat out stop using it. 

Remember Digg v4.0? Not only did that kill Digg, but it proved to be the making of Reddit, after a user exodus of biblical proportions.


Chip, meet shoulder

Twitter seems to permanently live in the shadow of Facebook, when comparisons between the two social media sites are way off base. Analysts constantly reference Facebook when commenting on Twitter’s performance, but that tells you more about analysts than it does about these two platforms. They are very, very different creatures. 

Products aside, let’s just compare the size of these two companies. Facebook is a true leviathan, whereas Twitter is nowhere near as developed as a business, and even the most bullish wouldn’t back it making a serious dent in Facebook’s space.



Yet Twitter is emulating Facebook’s product to some degree. There have been experiments with the Twitter timeline, with talk of “balancing recency with relevance” leading to the ‘While You Were Away’ feature. This is rather like the algorithms that power the newsfeed on Facebook.  

Twitter has also been accused of copying Facebook’s design too. We also have ‘Likes’ nowadays, rather than ‘Favourites’. And hearts rather than stars. And article previews. And goddamned autoplay videos.

It’s worth pointing out that this is a two-way street, with Facebook adding hashtags a couple of years ago, and a trending section, and verified profiles. 

But there’s something else too. Look beyond the 10,000 character feature and consider the effect this will have on the user experience. 

That’s right, a walled garden is slowly being built.

You ain’t going nowhere

Facebook is the biggest walled garden in the world. And it seems that Twitter wants – and needs – to compete at some level. 

Just like Facebook, Twitter seems to be reverse engineering some kind of old school online portal. Potentially great for revenue, but generally lame for users.

Ultimately this is all about controlling the media and the flow of users from one site to another. In a walled garden, users are dissuaded (or prevented) from leaving. And that’s all about power and monetisation. 

Slate’s Will Oremus wrote about the reasons why such a wall-building exercise is taking place. It’s a great overview of why walled gardens suck, from a user perspective: 

“After a while, you may notice that this garden has expanded to take in territory that once lay beyond its walls—and that those walls are a little higher than you remember them being. Stories published on Twitter may not be available elsewhere. At the same time, Twitter might start to exercise some control over which stories available elsewhere will be allowed inside its garden. That’s because Twitter is struggling to compete with rivals like Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr, all of which are designed to keep users in rather than continually sending them out to the broader web to view content.”

The keyword is ‘control’. Control of user flows and ad revenue, primarily. It might be good for short-term revenues, but will be a turn off for many users.

It might also suck for publishers.

What happens when people start writing longer tweets? Will they stop sharing links to other websites? Will Twitter copy Facebook’s ‘Instant Articles’ feature?

How this will affect Twitter’s commercial relationships with publishers remains to be seen. Presumably revenue sharing is the way forward, with Twitter calling the shots and claiming a piece of the pie.

Twitter COO Adam Bain spoke to Re:code to comment on the speculation, and addressed this in a roundabout way: 

“What the publishers care about is control, audience and monetization. And it’s been consistent – everything we do on the platform has been along those three lines: How do we give them as much control as we possibly can, how do we give them as much audience as we possibly can, how do we generate revenue together in a way that gives them as much revenue as we possibly can. Nothing that we have planned in 2016 deviates from that at all.”

The freedom to develop

Like all companies, Twitter needs to be able to throw some ideas around and see what sticks. The trouble is that without a solid strategic vision it will end up with way too many features and lose focus. 

The core experience then withers on the vine, resulting in a product with a serious lack of identity. 

I read a really interesting article about ‘Evernote’s 5% problem’ yesterday. The company’s former CEO, Phil Libin, explained that people would come up to him at conferences and say that they loved Evernote, but “only use 5%” of the product. 

“The problem is that it’s a different 5% for everyone. If everyone just found the same 5%, then we’d just cut the other 95% and save ourselves a lot of money. It’s a very broad usage base. And we need to be a lot better about tying it together.”

Evernote has never managed to fix the problem, though it has rolled out a bunch of new features. And Libin has stepped down. The momentum is not great, with a lot of senior staff leaving the company and talk of 2015 being a “tumultuous year” for Evernote. When the tide turns, it turns fast.

There will be plenty of mitigating factors behind Evernote’s shaky 2015, but it largely comes down to product focus. All tech companies should sit up and take note.

I think Twitter is suffering from a similar personality crisis. It doesn’t really know what it is, or what it wants to be. It seems to be a product in flux, that is building new features to please shareholders rather than users. Understandable, of course, but short sighted.

Some of this is a legacy issue, but with Jack Dorsey back at the helm perhaps the company will be directed towards a glorious, user-centric future. I just hope that it’s not a me-too future, with Twitter’s core experience being rather too similar to that of its supposed competitors, and entirely aligned to its commercial needs. 

Anyway, here’s what Jack had to say about the speculation…

What do you make of it all? 

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