Gloves Off: Was Twitter's rise to 280 characters wise?

(L-R) Jessica Jensen, Kevin Lee
(L-R) Jessica Jensen, Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, cofounder and executive chairman, Didit
Agency founder and investor in startups 

Twitter’s announcement that it was experimentally upping its 140-character limit to 280 prompted a round of speculation about what the change means for the future of the service. It also made many observers wonder how it will affect regular users, as well as the jobs of social media marketers, managers, and influencers who are
active on the social network.

This is a good change, and while some might argue it removes one of the site’s most established, distinctive features, it’s important to note Twitter essentially upped the character limit in 2016 by no longer counting photos, videos, GIFs, polls, and quoted tweets against the 140 characters.

Twitter’s announcement of the permanent change on November 7 was mostly focused on the need to give users more space to express themselves, and highlighting the different experiences users have when tweeting in different languages. Supporting this claim is the fact that 9% of all tweets in English hit the 140-character limit, whereas 0.4% of all tweets in Japanese hit the limit.

Given that languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese can convey more meaning per character than English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese, increasing the character limit will standardize the user experience, as well as alleviate the frustration of not being able to fit a message into the limit.

From a business messaging perspective, many companies aren’t comfortable boiling their messages down to the bare minimum. The new limit will give advertisers greater flexibility to get their message across.

This change may help boost Twitter’s anemic ad revenues, which have taken a hit in 2017 even as rival Facebook’s ad revenue continues to rise.

The 280-character limit will also make the lives of social media managers easier, given that when scheduling posts for multi-network social blasts, they must routinely create two sets of messages — an abbreviated 140-character string for Twitter, and a longer text string for Facebook.

While brevity remains a virtue and Twitter has trained a generation of marketers to keep their messaging concise, it can also be constraining for the kinds of messages flying around Twitter. 

Jessica Jensen, global director of marketing, Qualcomm
Ten years in digital marketing (tech, sports, CPG industries) 

Twitter is already fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant among its peer set. LinkedIn has far more sophisticated ad targeting while also attracting a user who’s looking to learn and absorb information of a professional variety. People on LinkedIn plan to spend a while digesting long-form articles and sharing quotes from industry luminaries.

Instagram is the go-to platform for anyone younger than 30 and is seeing good traction with stories. It’s also still the dominant platform for social influencers outside of YouTube. Snapchat is a primary contender.

And, of course, there is Facebook, with its 2 billion monthly users. It leads due to its sheer girth of users, high average time on site — nudging one hour per day — and push toward being one step ahead of the others. Facebook is always rolling out new features, analytics updates, and experimenting with new functionality such as marketplace. All of those attributes put the company in a different league.

With so much competition among the social media sites for consumer attention and advertising dollars, Twitter must differentiate.

And it can’t just be all about President Donald Trump’s early morning tweets.

While the 140-character count was originally based on maximum text message length, it has since become a defining characteristic. It is Twitter’s tattoo. What may have been chosen arbitrarily has come to symbolize the platform’s identity.

There are many things Twitter could improve, but this is not something it should focus on. In light of the "paid for by rubles" controversy, I’d like to see Twitter focus its efforts on authenticating users and partnering with their counterparts in Silicon Valley to recommend a healthy way to monitor abusive or false content. While less sexy, these are steps that will earn trust from their users and signal a maturity in the tech industry.

Lastly, Twitter’s short character count is a forcing function for something we all need more of: time. The brevity Twitter has imposed on us is what makes the platform interesting and playful. It also spawned hashtag culture, which won’t go away anytime soon.

When it comes to the maximum length of tweets, less is more. 

PRWeek’s View: What makes Twitter, Twitter? The character count. It should have stayed focused on more important things.

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