If Twitter officially extends the tweet’s maximum character count, it would mark the biggest change in the social network’s history and the biggest bet on its future.
Twitter’s defining feature — the tweet’s 140-character limit — may soon go the way of Instagram’s square posts and Vine’s, well, everything.
Twitter has started a test to double the length of tweets to 280 characters, the company announced on Tuesday.
Twitter will use the open-ended test to decide whether to officially change the maximum tweet length, but the company has not yet committed to that change. If Twitter does opt to officially adopt 280 characters as the new maximum length, it would mark the biggest change to the social network since its founding in 2006 and the biggest big bet yet by the company to increase its user base.
Beginning today, people may start to see these twice-as-long tweets in their Twitter feeds, though the option to post 280-character tweets will be limited to “a small group” during the the testing phase, according to a company blog post published by Twitter product manager Aliza Rosen and senior software engineer Ikuhiro Ihara. Those extended tweets could include ads if members of the test group opt to run a 141-character-plus tweet as a Promoted Tweet, said a Twitter spokesperson.
The test will span all languages except Chinese, Japanese and Korean, because in those three languages, a single character can communicate twice as much information as a character in other languages, per the blog post.
“Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people Tweeting in English, but it is not for those Tweeting in Japanese. Also, in all markets, when people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting,” wrote Rosen and Ihara.
Aside from the lengthened character count, Twitter is not making any other changes to the length of tweets or how they are counted. But Twitter has made a lot of changes on that front in the past year. Last year, the company stopped counting photos, videos, GIFs, polls and quoted tweets against the 140-character limit, though links still count. Then, earlier this year, it dropped usernames from the character count in reply tweets (all of these changes will apply to the 280-character tweets being tested, per the spokesperson). And now, the company may cap those changes by officially changing the count itself.
Twitter’s 140-character limit was originally imposed to approximate the length of a text message and make the social network more inviting to people to post thoughts on the fly from their phones. “Everyone gets the same amount of space to Twitter, no more confusion or guessing as you are typing,” wrote Twitter co-founder and current CEO Jack Dorsey in a note to employees in January 2007, according to the book “Hatching Twitter.”
But what was meant to mitigate confusion has elicited frustration over the past decade. Apparently, people do not like to be edited. As a result, they have opted for loopholes, like taking screenshots of longer texts typed in their phone’s note-taking app and posting them as photos to Twitter or stringing together multiple tweets into a thread, or “tweetstorm.” Or they have chosen not to use Twitter altogether, contributing to the company’s struggle to grow its audience, which had begun to abate but is stagnating again.
By relaxing the maximum length of a tweet, Twitter would hope to make itself more inviting to people previously frustrated by its forced brevity but could risk alienating others for whom that brevity makes their feeds more easily scannable. The delicate balance between risk and reward suggests why Twitter has not committed to the change. Instead, the company will use the test to see how people respond to seeing longer tweets and how the option to write longer affects the length of a typical tweet.