Almost a year ago, I proposed that Twitter double its character limit from 140 to 280. The microblogging site long ago outgrew its original purpose as a platform for simple status updates. Now people use Twitter for news, jokes, conversations, and ferocious arguments—and 140 characters is too cramped for all of these things. That’s why people often resort to hacks like multipart tweets, ugly textese, and TwitLonger to express their expansive thoughts. Though it would be a bad idea to drop the character limit entirely, allowing up to 280 characters would let people add more heft to their tweets while ensuring they wouldn’t drone on.
Everyone thought I was nuts. People at the company pointed out that the service is still used by lots of folks who rely on SMS text messaging for access; the 140-character limit was originally chosen so that tweets would fit within texts, and if Twitter dropped it, texters wouldn’t be able to see the bigger tweets.
Lots of folks on Twitter called me a moron, too, and I had a long, mostly incoherent argument about the merits of longer tweets with Mathew Ingram, a blogger at GigaOm, who wrote a piece calling my idea “dumb.” (On Twitter, I tried to tell Ingram that his article was equally dumb for suggesting that I was proposing unlimited-character tweets rather than 280-character tweets, but of course Twitter’s dumb character limit made the whole argument dumb.) And not long ago, I went to a dinner at which Twitter CEO Dick Costolo talked about the bad advice people had given the company over the years. One of his examples was the recurrent proposal to drop the character limit. The audience laughed and laughed at the stupidity of the idea.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read last week that Twitter is beginning to push past the sacrosanct 140. In a blog post, the company announced the creation of “expanded tweets,” which will allow for “interactive experiences” within boring old text-laden posts. Technically, all tweets can still be only 140 characters long. But the company is letting select organizations—including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, TMZ, and the WWE—append more stuff to tweets that reference their content.
For instance, if I link to an article from the Times, my followers will now see a little button on the tweet labeled “View summary.” If you click that, you’ll see hundreds more characters: The article’s headline, the author’s byline and Twitter handle, the publication’s Twitter handle, a photo from the piece, and even a short snippet from the article. Here’s what an expanded tweet will look like:
How many characters is all that? Twitter has posted guidelines for sites looking to create these in-tweet “media experiences,” and they specify exactly how much more expansive the new tweets can be. Headlines in supersized tweets can be 70 characters long. Snippets can be 200 characters long. And that’s on top of the main tweet, which can be 140 characters long. Add it all up and you get 410 characters! I can already picture the billboard. Expanded Tweets—fortified with 270 more characters!
But I kid. I think expanded tweets are a great development for Twitter, a way to add depth to the service while still clinging to its hyperabridged roots. In truth, expanded tweets have been around for a while—if you include a picture or a video as part of a Twitter message, then your followers can click to see it. This continued tweet expansion was inevitable. A shrinking percentage of Twitter’s userbase accesses the site through SMS, so the 140-character limit was becoming increasingly arbitrary (SMS users will still see all Tweets, but they won’t be able to see the expanded summaries). Instead, most of us get our tweets on the Web and on smartphones, venues that allow for richer content.
As expanded tweets roll out to all users on all devices, we’ll find that posts which pack 410 characters worth of information will make the network a deeper, more coherent source of news and conversation.
For one thing, expanded tweets will make Twitter feel less disjointed. Today, if you see a friend linking to an article of mine with a note, “Greatest article ever!!!!!” you might accidentally click on the story without knowing it’s another dumb Farhad Manjoo piece. Expanded tweets will let you see what’s behind links before you click on them. They’ll also let you follow your favorite writers right from tweets that link to their pieces. And as Twitter adds similar expansive summaries of other kinds of content—perhaps you’ll be able to see reviews when someone links to an Amazon product, or maybe Twitter will let me quote a 200-word summary of an article when I link to it—the experience will become more engaging. Twitter won’t be a place that’s always sending you away to other things. Instead, it will become a destination.
One criticism of expanded tweets is that Twitter has only allowed a few organizations to get expansive. Why do links to the New York Times get expanded but not links to your favorite Ryan Gosling-themed Tumblr? As blogger Dave Winer put it, “no one should think that this is a level playing field, that all content is treated equally, because that is not true.”