Twitter is expanding the number of things you can post in a 140-character tweet, without expanding the number of characters. Within the next few months, usernames, quoted tweets, photos, and other media attachments will no longer count against the tweet’s 140-character limit. The company says it will also (finally) enable users to begin tweets with usernames without first adding a period, and — attention thought leaders — natively retweet themselves.
It’s a spate of changes long requested by the company’s core users, and they could simplify a service that can still feel forbidding to newcomers. It’s part of a series of steps Twitter has taken over the past six months to make its core product easier to use. "Generally, we want to make sure we’re encouraging a whole lot more conversations on Twitter," CEO Jack Dorsey said in an interview with The Verge. "This is the most notable change we’ve made in recent times around conversation in particular, and around giving people the full expressiveness of the 140 characters. I’m excited to see even more dialog because of this."
Dorsey said that counting usernames against the limit inhibited discussions because adding only a few people to a tweet dramatically reduced the number of characters available for conversation. The changes also end a longstanding quirk of the platform, in which tweets that began with usernames were visible only to users who followed both the person tweeting and the person named. The feature, which was meant to hide replies to users you didn’t follow, was not widely understood. "Unfortunately those rules are hidden, and then they find out later," Dorsey said. "So then they have to learn this weird syntax that kind of looks janky. So we want to take that away first and foremost to remove some of the confusing aspects of the service."
"This is the most notable change we've made in recent times around conversation."
Twitter said the changes are likely to arrive one at a time, following a period of time designed to let developers who use the Twitter API to update their apps. The moves come after a spate of similar product changes in recent months aimed at making Twitter more approachable to newcomers. Those moves included replacing "favorites" with "likes," sorting tweets in the timeline by quality rather than recency, and launching Moments, a tab of Twitter highlights curated by an in-house team.
While the changes have largely been welcome, they have done little to broaden the appeal of the core service. The company’s advertising business has been slow to develop, and the company’s number of monthly users has been essentially flat for a year.
But Dorsey, who returned to the company as CEO last June, said he is pleased with the company’s recent speed in releasing product updates. "The most important thing to me is that we’re increasing our shipping velocity," he said. "And that’s a really good sign. This is not trivial stuff to do — this is the core foundation of the technology. Some of this stuff is 7 years old. There’s a lot of infrastructure on the back end to do something that looks fairly simple on the front end. But ultimately that vision of being the easiest place to see anything that’s happening right now, and be the place to talk about it, is coming more and more to bear."
"We're increasing our shipping velocity."
Twitter has discussed letting users post more than 140 characters of text. Dorsey wouldn’t rule it out, but hinted at some reasons why the company hasn’t pursued it to date. "We’re always exploring what we can do with the tweet and how we can make it better and make it more expressive," he said. "But the thing we want to make sure we’re always maintaining is that Twitter feels fast. The brevity, that liveness, and the conversational aspect." Dorsey said Twitter is "continuing to explore" ways to make tweets more expressive.
There is still some low-hanging fruit for Twitter to tackle in the core product, including allowing users to edit their tweets after publication and taking additional steps to curb abuse and harassment on the platform. And given the company’s recent moves, there’s reason to expect more changes like these. When new users are slow in coming, there’s a lot of value in better serving your existing ones.