Tuesday, Twitter announced that it would test 280-character tweets, a doubling of the 140-character standard on the social network.
If you can still read this while gasping for breath and looking for a place to sit down while you absorb this news, I have something to tell you: You broke it, Twitter’s just trying to fix it.
There was a time when Twitter was 140 characters of text. That was it. That was nice and information-dense, but you wanted to add pictures. You wanted to add more text in one tweet than it was possible to write, so you screenshotted the text of stories or even your own notepad.
You started numbering your tweets, tweetstormin’.
Whatever measly restriction Twitter tried to hold onto, for the purity of the product, you just routed around. And now, no one can seriously argue that Twitter is only a place for 140-character bits of text. Like, who are we kidding here? And why do we think that the text-message character limits of the early ’00s somehow magically stumbled onto the platonic ideal of message length for a social network built primarily from small chunks of text?
How many of you even remember the time when you could only send 140 characters in a text message on your smartphone? What keeps texts short, and what will keep most Twitter messages short, is the culture of messaging on a phone, which like all cultures is viscous and will change more slowly than the product. You’ll have time to adjust.
So who cares about a doubling of the character limit? It was arbitrary then and it’s arbitrary now. My guess is you’ll see very little difference in the platform, and maybe the success of the change will give Twitter the confidence to focus on what really matters: the communities that have gathered on the service.
People think that Twitter’s brand is built around the 140-characters. But if you ask me, Twitter’s core identity is contained in the @username. The @ is about the people inside Twitter: people who tweet things they shouldn’t, people who tweet about hurricanes all night, people who love books, people who have rare expertise.
You see it best at conferences, around TV shows, and when there is a major local breaking-news event. It’s not that Twitter, as a whole, becomes awesome during these moments. Sometimes, in fact, the user experience breaks. But no other product on the internet quickly sorts out who the important individuals to follow for a given event are.
Twitter’s value has always been in these little pro-am micro-networks, hived off from the larger feed, where anyone with knowledge, wit, or skills can become central to the perception of a moment. That’s not going to change now.