For as long as Twitter has existed, it has been a place of brevity, if not levity. The 140 character limit—originally created so that tweets could fit into single SMS messages—is as much a part of the brand as the silhouetted bird. You want to yell about the NFL, hurl some insults at the president, or debate the parentage of Kylie Jenner’s unborn child? Fine. Just make it quick.
It’s impossible to express a nuanced opinion about politics or fit all of the details about your wild weekend in Florida into just a few dozen words. That’s the whole point; that’s what Twitter is. But from Twitter’s perspective, those constraints present a problem: When people can’t cram their thought into 140 characters, they simply don’t tweet—bad news for a social media platform struggling with a stagnant user base and dwindling use. So what do you do to encourage people to stay on Twitter rather than spilling their thoughts elsewhere? You give them more space.
Starting today, the platform will let a small group of beta testers experiment with a 280 character limit, doubling what can fit into a single tweet.
Twitter says it made the move primarily for parity in language. “Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people tweeting in English, but it is not for those tweeting in Japanese,” says Aliza Rosen, a product manager at Twitter, in a blog post. In Japanese, only 0.4% of tweets reach the character limit, compared to 9% in English. From Twitter’s vantage point, that suggests that the platform works better for those tweeting in Japanese than in English, and in similar languages. “When people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people tweeting,” says Rosen.
This is a small change, but a big move for us. 140 was an arbitrary choice based on the 160 character SMS limit. Proud of how thoughtful the team has been in solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence! https://t.co/TuHj51MsTu
— jack (@jack) September 26, 2017
This will be the first time that Twitter directly increases the character count on tweets, but it follows a string of subtle changes to maximize the amount of content users can stuff inside a single tweet. For years, the company has been stretching the limits of individual tweets. The timeline, in (of course) brief:
2006: Twitter debuts as a platform for sending short updates to a network of friends through text messages—sort of like a precursor to GroupMe. Since SMS messages could fit 160 characters, Twitter capped each tweet at 140 characters, leaving a little room to fit usernames. Back then, it wasn’t even called Twitter—just Twttr—and most tweets were just a few words long. That year, one tech writer described an average tweet as being along the lines of “hungry” or “cleaning my apartment.”
2009: Twitter introduces the retweet function, so you can add to your own thoughts by sharing others. It didn’t change the amount of space per tweet, but it did make it easier to amplify content.
2011: A new link shortener on Twitter reduces any given URL in a tweet to 19 characters. The same year, TweetDeck, a third-party service for managing tweets, creates Deck.ly, which bypasses the 140 character limit by creating a special page to display messages of any length. Twitter acquires TweetDeck a year later and kills Deck.ly. RIP, Deck.ly.
2012: Tweets with links now include content previews, images, and videos. Now, users can see a preview from an external site before clicking on a tweeted link.
2013: The platform replaces its previous link shortener—except the new one renders a link in 22 characters instead of 19, leaving a mere 118 characters for commentary!
2015: Twitter nixes the 140 character count in direct messages, replacing it with a 10,000 character limit. “While Twitter is largely a public experience, Direct Messages let you have private conversations about the memes, news, movements, and events that unfold on Twitter,” the company writes in a blog post. Tweets, though, remain capped at 140 characters.
2016: Rumors spread that Twitter plans to extend the 10,000 character limit to tweets as well, after co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted a screenshot about Twitter users tweeting screenshots. The rumor never pans out, but Twitter does begin to exclude photos, GIFs, polls, and quoted tweets from the 140-character count. This gives people more room to tweet—even if, in an election year, those tweets skew more incendiary than insightful. After all, giving the cesspool more square footage doesn’t make it any cleaner.
2017: Along with a redesign, Twitter reformats tweet replies. Now, when you reply to someone’s tweet, their username doesn’t count toward the character limit.
All of which brings us to today! For now, Twitter says the 280-character count is very much an experiment, which will only apply to a small group of random users. Whether they give all Twitter users more space in the future remains to be seen.
Even still, the experiment seems like the latest in the evolution of what, exactly, Twitter is for. When the platform launched in 2006, Dorsey described it as a place for “short burst[s] of inconsequential information.” Today, Twitter feels like a space for much more—a place to share GIFs, journalism, and one-liners, but also harassment, threats, and political opinions. Doubling the number of characters that fit into a single tweet won’t change that. But in the future, more space could make Twitter a very different kind of platform, giving more space for both the best and worst things online to grow.