Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Twitter prepares to remove its 140-character limit

Another day, another editorial note: I write lots of stuff. Analyses, mostly, as prep for my on-air work. I often call them talking points, and I typically share them with my producers when we're preparing for an upcoming interview. While nothing I do on radio or TV is scripted, by preparing overviews in writing, it helps me wrap my head around a topic, it gets the entire team on the same page, and it makes for what I think is a better interview.

At least I hope it does.

Over the weekend, I found myself reading over some of the talking point packages I've pulled together recently, and I realized they stand rather nicely on their own as somewhat nerdy-sounding blog entries. So in the interest of taking some of the research and analysis that I do day-to-day and making it more accessible, I'm going to share sharing more of these here, as well.

The first one is a closer look at Twitter's plans to remove its 140-character limit, which I wrote in advance of a CTV News Channel interview with Marcia MacMillan that aired this morning (video link here.) Looking forward to your feedback.

The issue
The influential tech website, Re/Code, published a report Tuesday that quoted multiple reliable sources as saying Twitter is working on a feature that will allow users to bypass the 140-character limit that has applied to tweets since the microblogging service’s launch in 2006.
The feature will reportedly go live before the end of Q1 2016.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of this
Re/Code first reported on this last September. This week’s update narrows down the timeline and provides additional details on what to expect.
The rationale
While Twitter is widely considered to be the heartbeat of the Internet, the resource used by digerati to connect Right Now when major news is happening - or when they simply want to reach out to a broader audience - it has struggled to grow its audience beyond the core of tech-, media- and culture-savvy users.
In October, the company reported it had 320 million monthly active users (MAUs), up only 1% over the previous quarter. In contrast, Facebook has 1.55 billion MAUs and continues to grow at a consistent rate.
The impact
As concerns over sustained growth mount, investors have hammered the company’s shares, which continue to trade at historic lows - under $22 at close Monday, less than a third of its all-time high. In social media, growth is life, and a stagnant user base is a massive red flag. Like a rocket, it either accelerates rapidly or it risks crashing to Earth.
Coupled with stubbornly high costs - it costs a lot of money to run a global-scale real-time multiplatform utility - and challenging revenue and profit growth, the company doesn’t have the dollars to fund continued innovation in new/expanded services.
Twitter laid off 8% of its staff last year - its first ever - and it’s entirely likely there will be more bloodletting if things don’t improve.
What Twitter needs to do?
Unless it figures out how to spark renewed growth, the company is vulnerable to takeover or worse. Strategies for achieving this include radically altering the very nature of the service to enhance its appeal to a wider, more mainstream and less techie audience (i.e. figure out a way to get my mom to use it.)
Twitter’s abandonment rate - i.e. the number of users who have signed up, then bailed - is among the highest in the social media space. While loyal users “get it”, mostly everyone else does not. Like a powerful, stripped down sports car, it’s too difficult to explain in 30 seconds, and its real power isn’t immediately apparent to the casual user.
Beyond growth, Twitter needs to monetize, too
While Twitter certainly needs to kickstart user growth, it also needs to figure out how to make money from (monetize, in online parlance) the users it does have. Unfortunately, the nature of its service makes that difficult to do.
For users who want to go beyond the 140-character limit, they can include shortened links to websites, blog entries, photos, videos and other content. In virtually all cases, though, this content lives outside of Twitter’s playground. While Facebook keeps users firmly within its so-called walled garden, Twitter simply serves as something of a glorified switching station, redirecting traffic to all other parts of the Internet instead of keeping that traffic and user-attention for itself. It’s hard to make money when you’re pointing traffic elsewhere.
The reported change would allow Twitter to host more of this linked content within its own domain and app - which would give it a platform to turn all that internal traffic into revenue-generating activity. That activity is mainly ads, of course, but also includes big data/analytics - basically insight into user activity which would allow it to further tailor its services AND sell that knowledge to third party marketers, agencies, advertisers and others.
This Big Brother-like tracking - which Google and Facebook have raised to a high art - is easier to do when you own the entire playground.
What Twitter has been doing
The company removed the 140-character limit on direct messages (DM, or private person-to-person messages) last year. Now, DMs can be up to 10,000 characters. In comparison, Facebook Messenger’s messages are capped at 20,000 characters.
Jack Dorsey, founder and original CEO, returned to head the company last year, as well, in a move designed to reinforce investor’s faith in the struggling company. It hasn’t worked yet, and this week’s report is a sign that the company is preparing for more significant change.
Why is there a 140-character limit in the first place?
The tight cap was instituted as a way of allowing tweets to comfortably fit into the size of a standard SMS or text message (which is 160 characters. When Twitter was launched, its main delivery method was via text message, so aligning with that tight infrastructure made sense back then.
As Twitter became a full-fledged app and web service and moved away from its SMS-based roots, the 140-character limit stuck.
What are the potential risks of removing the 140-character limit?
Twitter’s very nature is light, agile and sparse. The character limit forces brevity and allows users to scroll through large volumes of tweets in virtually no time at all. You can cover a lot of ground by reading a tweet stream. It’s an architecture that works just as well on smartphones and other mobile devices as it does on a desktop or laptop computer.
Unlike a Facebook timeline or newsfeed, which is often cluttered with longer-form content, Twitter’s interface is efficient and easy to follow.
By eliminating the character limit, the company risks becoming a me-too platform by losing the lightness that made Twitter so appealing in the first place. The trick is to open things up for newbies to drive growth without ruining the power-user-like experience for the already-addicted. A tough balancing act indeed.
What’s the company saying?
In response to the Re/Code report, Dorsey tweeted late Tuesday using the very same trick that many users use to bypass the 140-character limit: A screenshot of a longer-form piece of writing.
He somewhat cryptically hinted that the company’s solution might involve something of an enhancement to this workaround: "We've spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it. Instead, what if that text...was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That's more utility and power."
The fact that Dorsey even commented in response to the report is notable, as last year’s initial report was met with silence (which is more typical in Silicon Valley.) It lends tremendous credence to the building belief that something big is about to happen.
The bottom line
Messing with the basic formula that made Twitter such a darling in the first place is a massive risk. If botched, it will ruin the very flavour of the service and turn off its loyal - if stagnant - user base. It may be a fifth the size of Facebook, but those 320 million users are pretty rabid about Twitter.
But the company is clearly at an organizational and fiscal crossroads, and business-as-usual simply can’t cut it anymore. It needs to swing for the fences by making fundamental changes to the way it works.
The DM change last year was just a tiny taste, a baby step on a path that will ultimately rewrite what Twitter is and how it works. It’s a risk the company can’t afford not to take.
Your turn: Is is technological heresy for Twitter to remove the character limit?

1 comment:

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

MrWhoeverUR ‏@jersing Jan 5

Twitter: what do u want
Women: harassment control
T: more characters?
W: this guy literally just said he was gonna kill me
T: ok! 10,000!