The tweets in your timeline are about to get super-sized. Twitter said today that it has started testing 280-character tweets, doubling the previous character limit, in an effort to help users be more expressive. “Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people tweeting in English,” the company said in a blog post. “When people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting — which is awesome!”
About 9 percent of all tweets today are exactly 140 characters, Twitter says. It’s tough to do that on accident, suggesting that users frequently have to edit their initial thoughts to get them under the limit. (It’s certainly true for me.) Now Twitter hopes to ease that burden by doubling the character limit in what it calls “languages impacted by cramming,” which includes every language except for Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.
Users frequently have to edit their initial thoughts to get them under the limit
The rationale for excluding those languages is that users can fit more thoughts into fewer characters given the nature of their written language. The average length of a tweet in Japanese is 15 characters, and only 0.4 percent of tweets hit the 140-character limit, Twitter says. Still, the company said it is open to revisiting the subject of expanded tweets for Asian languages as it learns more.
The 140-character limit was originally established to reflect the length of SMS messages, which was how tweets were distributed prior to the development of mobile apps. SMS messages are limited to 160 characters; Twitter reserved the remaining 20 for the username. As often happens in creative mediums, the constraint spurred creativity, and Twitter became a fast-moving, newsy, jokey, weirdo playground.
Twitter has considered expanding the tweet length for years. By the end of 2015, the company was moving closer toward introducing tweets of up to 10,000 characters, company sources told The Verge. It was being developed simultaneously with a new ranked timeline, which would depart from the purely chronological feed in favor of one that attempted to show users the best tweets first.
Twitter once considered tweets of up to 10,000 characters
Within the company, both moves were controversial. Twitter’s identity has always derived from its real-time nature and the brevity of its messages; 10,000-character tweets shown in a Facebook-style feed threatened to confuse the product. Ultimately, the company arrived at a series of compromises. In 2016, it introduced an optional ranked timeline that showed “the best tweets first,” followed by tweets in the standard reverse-chronological order. It also expanded tweets by not counting media attachments against the character limit.
Doubling the length of tweets, then, is a radical step, but it’s a much less radical one than others the company has previously considered. (Others have gone further — Twitter clone Mastodon launched with 500-character messages.)
Can 280 characters avert global nuclear war?
Still, super-sized tweets are likely to change the nature of the network as more people gain access to them, and in unpredictable ways. Will those multi-message “tweetstorms” shrink into a smaller number of tweets, or will the expanded real estate encourage people to write even more? What new kinds of jokes and memes are possible at 280 characters that were not possible at 140? Will 280 characters allow for just enough nuance and diplomacy that we may be able to avert global thermonuclear war?
We’ll soon find out. Most Twitter applications should already be able to show longer tweets, thanks to changes that the company introduced to its API last year. You’ll know you have expanded tweets if the character counter at the bottom right-hand corner of the composer looks like a circle. It will count down from 280 until you run out of room.
“We understand since many of you have been Tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters — we felt it, too,” the company said in its blog post. “But we tried this, saw the power of what it will do, and fell in love with this new, still brief, constraint. We are excited to share this today, and we will keep you posted about what we see and what comes next.”
I asked to interview Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about the big change, but Twitter said no.
Correction, 6:06 p.m.: This article originally misstated the percentage of tweets that hit the 140-character limit. It is 0.4 percent, not 0.9 percent.