Tweets Are About to Get a Whole Lot Longer. Hooray!

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June 20 2012 6:45 PM

Your Tweets Are About To Get Longer

In praise of the death of the 140-character limit.

Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter
Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter

Photograph by Brian Harkin/Getty Images.

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.

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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:

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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.”

In a conversation with a Twitter spokeswoman, though, I got the sense that the preferential treatment is only temporary, part of a slow rollout of a complex technical change. At the moment, Twitter is letting any site apply to have its content show up as expanded summaries. Over time, it seems likely that more and more sites will be allowed to automatically expand into summaries within tweets. So not long from now, when someone links to a post from Is Ryan Gosling Cuter Than a Puppy?, you’ll be able to see both Ryan and the puppy right in the tweet, and perhaps even cast your vote there, too.

A bigger-picture criticism is that, by offering more and more stuff within each tweet, Twitter risks becoming something altogether different from a quick-update site. This fear rests on the idea that there’s something mystical and poetic about the current character limit. Many people argue that it inspires creativity, and that without it, Twitter would get bogged down in endless talk and too many flashy things. Costolo himself has fretted about this. In an interview with Fortune last year, the CEO was asked whether he felt pressure to make Twitter more dynamic in response to other, more feature-rich social networks. “You know, if you just look in the sideview mirror at what are particular companies doing, and then you start to say, ‘Twitter is going to be the world in your pocket—now with video chat!’—then you lose your way, right?" Costolo said. "So, we're going to offer simplicity in a world of complexity, focus on our goal, while we understand what everyone else is doing."

Expanding tweets isn’t quite the same thing as adding video chat to Twitter—but it’s moving in that direction. The cynical view is that Costolo is rolling out expanded tweets for commercial reasons. In the same way that the new feature will show you a snippet from a new article, supersized tweets would let McDonald’s offer you an in-tweet coupon for super-sized fries.

But I don’t think money is Twitter’s main reason for expanding tweets. The more simple explanation is that small blocks of text are becoming more and more out of step with everything else online. The Web is a bustling place that’s overflowing with pictures, movies, songs, and blog posts. Twitter’s purpose is to reflect everything that’s going on in this crazy ecosystem. If it takes a few hundred more characters to do so, what’s so bad about that?

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