Should Twitter remove the 140-character limit? 11 arguments for and against it

Here is a German version of this article.

For what seems like an eternity, Twitter has been in somewhat of a crisis mode. The fact that it currently is run by an interim CEO who at the same time is in charge of another billion dollar company completely unrelated to Twitter is quite symbolic.

It’s safe to assume that at some point in the near future, bigger changes will have to happen, at least if the goal of overall growth of all the important numbers remains. One of the more frequently debated questions of the past years has been whether Twitter should get rid of its 140 character limit. As someone who has been on Twitter since 2007, I naturally have thoughts about that – some that make me be in favor of elimination of the character limit for tweets, but also some that make me want to keep it. Here are the pros and cons.

Pros of removing Twitter’s character limit

No more forced simplifications
While I am a fan of removing complexity and keeping things simple, too often Twitter’s 140 character limit forces people into overly simplified statements, preventing them from expressing balanced views on topics that require a more-dimensional approach. Without a character restriction, discussions about highly charged topics might end up being more balanced and less “black or white”.

Less fragmented debates
Ever since Marc Andreessen invented the tweetstorm, people have started to create numbered chains of tweets in order to express lengthier lines of thoughts. The downside are fragmented discussions and a high amount of noise in the Timeline. It also is unnecessarily cumbersome to make reference to these tweetstorms in online media channels.

Improved visual user experience
The character limit also forces users to all kinds of creative moves and workarounds to push as much content as possible into a tweet, resulting in ugly and often cryptic abbreviations.

The chance for less impulsive outrage
Tweets with a limitation to 140 characters are the perfect vehicle to express emotion-driven outrage about sudden news events. Too perfect, maybe. Often a bit more reflection about a certain topic would suit Twitter users well. By removing the character restriction, some users, after having gotten used to the new possibilities of longer statements, might end up typing so much more that by the end of their composition, their initial anger has passed.

A more serious publishing platform
If the character limit is removed, more users would rely on Twitter to publish and distribute actual journalistic work. Twitter would turn from a distribution channel for teasers of content that is hosted elsewhere to the actual host of content. As a tightly connected global network of multiplicators who quickly spread tweets into every corner of this planet, the service would immediately become highly attractive to more writers and content creators..

Unforeseen consequences
A lifting of the 140-character restriction would most likely have a couple of unforeseen consequences. The look and feel of Twitter would change, which in turn would influence how, why and how much users end up interacting on/through Twitter. This could obviously be a good or a bad thing, which is why I add it to the pro as well as to the con section.

Cons of removing Twitter’s character limit

The lightness of Twitter could disappear
Right now, switching into the stream of tweets and out of it does not require lots of cognitive work. The bit-sized character of tweets ensures that the relevancy and level of individual importance of each tweet can be evaluated quickly, even in situations with external distractions. However, if the average text length of tweets is being increased significantly, each tweet would automatically require more attention in order to be evaluated and cognitively processed. This does not necessarily have to be bad, but it might discourage usage of Twitter as a tool for micro-breaks throughout the day. It is like wanting to eat a little snack but being served a full three-course-meal.

Loss of one, if not THE main product differentiator
The 140 character limit which has been existing since the earliest days is legendary and a major characteristic of Twitter. It is what most people might think of as the major difference between the service and, say, Facebook or Google+. It forces briefness and makes it easy and fast to share content. If the 140-character limit goes away, some might even more than before question whether there is actually a need for Twitter. It would put Twitter under pressure to come up with new reasons for its own existence.

Additional work for developers of 3rd party apps
Twitter’s app platform has not developed too well, caused by the company’s own policies for apps. However, there are various third party apps that cater to media, marketing and market research professionals. A removal of the 140-character limit would change Twitter, and it would require all these services to adjust and, to some extent, to rebuild their own offers. This is probably not much of a big deal but should still be mentioned here.

Another nail in the coffin of blogging
Blogging is under threat by the rise of major centralized platforms, controlled by single gatekeepers. If one tweet could host the entire text of a typical blog post, there is a risk that the decline of blogging will accelerate.

Unforeseen consequences
A lifting of the 140-character restriction would most likely have a couple of unforeseen consequences. The look and feel of Twitter would change, which in turn would influence how, why and how much users end up interacting on/through Twitter. This could obviously be a good or a bad thing, which is why I add it to the pro as well as to the con section.

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4 comments

    • That’s an interesting comment. However, as far as I am aware of, Twitter is hardly being used in China/Chinese due to China’s blocking of the service.

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