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30 September 2015updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

Ditching Twitter’s 140-character limit won’t engage its legions of ghost users

Sources at the company say Twitter may get rid of the one thing that makes it unique: its 140-character limit. Longform tweets, here we come.

By Barbara Speed

Twitter is floundering. The site’s user numbers may be growing, but this belies the fact that over two thirds of its accounts are inactive. Over 40 per cent of accounts have never tweeted. And, most importantly, it’s losing money.

In response, the site under interim CEO Jack Dorsey is changing its original, simple set-up – 140-character tweets displayed chronologically in a user’s feed – in order to tempt in those vast swathes of unengaged users. First, they dressed up the site’s direct messaging service, allowing group chats and no character limit on messages. Now, though, it looks like they may take the red pen to what is arguably the site’s most central feature: the 140-character limit on tweets. 

According to technology news site re/code, sources close to the company say that Twitter is working a “new project” which will “enable Twitter users to publish long-form content to the service”. According to the site, Dorsey sees this new feature as one way to grow the site’s user base. 

However, as I wrote back in June, the main problems with the site for the average user are that it is scary, lonely, and hard to use. A select few, most working in the media, use it to broadcast their thoughts, brands and opinions, while the rest cower in silence. In this context, is it really a good idea to give Twitter’s elite an even bigger megaphone?

Even within the bounds of Twitter’s current rules, seasoned users find ways to pack even more of their opinions into the standard length tweet. There are the tweet chains:

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There are even special sites, like Twitlonger, which split your long, fascinating thoughts into Twitter-sized chunks and post them for you.

(Those not used to Twitter, incidentally, find these chains of tweets very confusing – especially if users don’t tag them with numbers, but just reply to their own tweets. This is because the tweets don’t appear together in other users’ newsfeed, and must be clicked on before they appear in a readble(ish) chain with the other tweets.) 

Then there are those who screenshot giant chunks of text and add them to their tweets as pictures:

In short: Twitter’s regular users already know how to get round the character limit, and allowing longer tweets just puts us at risk of hearing even more from  the loudmouth users who dominate the site. For those already confused and intimidated by the public nature of Twitter, the current limit on tweet lengths may actually be somewhat comforting – the pressure to say something worthwhile can only be greater once you have unlimited space to do it in. 

You always know a business in a trouble when it considers ditching its USP in order to attract more customers. Without its character limit, Twitter is just Facebook with a chronological newsfeed (oh wait – they might get rid of that too) or an uglier Tumblr. 

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