In a move that people have suggested for years–and that Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier got wind of last week–Twitter is about to open up some elbow room in its 140-character limit. The service is going to stop including photos, videos, GIFs, polls, and quote tweets and its count, as well as @names in replies, leaving more space for words. (Links will still count against the total.)
At the same time, the company is announcing some changes unrelated to character count, but that it is also making in the interest of simplifying the service. Tweets that begin with an @name will be seen by all of your followers, not just people who follow both you and the person who you’re name-checking. Right now, people broadcast such tweets to all their followers by affixing a period to the @name, for reasons that only Twitter users with very long memories will recall. And you’ll be able to retweet yourself, a gesture of self promotion that is currently forbidden.
None of this takes effect immediately. The company says the switch will happen in the coming months, and that it’s giving a heads-up now in part so that third-party developers who build apps and services atop the Twitter platform can revise their wares appropriately.
Why the changes? Why now? “It’s doing two things,” Twitter CMO Leslie Berland told me. “It’s making tweeting and conversations more intuitive, and also making them more expressive.” That will appeal to existing Twitter fans, she says, but also to newcomers, for whom the simplification effort is about “unlocking the experience.” And as she pointed out, these upcoming changes follow a variety of other recent adjustments intended to make Twitter more accessible, such as the way the timeline now algorithmically chooses a few worthwhile tweets to place at the top of your timeline.
By handling photos and other elements without cutting into the space you have to express yourself with words, Twitter will be making one of its biggest shifts ever. At first blush, it sounds like a loosening of the 140-character restriction. But the more I think about it, the more it feels like Twitter is actually doubling down on the limit.
Currently, adding a photo or GIF to a tweet leaves 116 characters to play with. That’s purely an artifact of (A) the way Twitter added new capabilities to a service that wasn’t originally designed to incorporate them; and (B) the efficiency with which it shoehorned them in. Giving you a fixed number of characters of text to say something, without requiring you to do any mental calculations about the impact of any supplementary items you include, will only make the 140-character aspect of Twitter more core to its personality.
I assume that these upcoming revisions won’t eliminate chatter about Twitter permitting people to write at greater length–perhaps not through a lifting of the 140-character limit but by allowing users to attach a lengthier piece of text to a tweet, much as you can already attach a photo, poll, or video. When I asked Berland about possible further adjustments along these lines, she merely said that the company is “always looking for ways to make [Twitter] more expressive, dynamic, and live.”
That stance doesn’t preclude the service from breaking past 140 characters in one way or another. But getting wordier wouldn’t help Twitter achieve any of the goals that Berland, CEO Jack Dorsey, and others have lately been articulating. And maybe that means that the 140-character limit that the company established out of necessity a decade ago, in the era of text messaging, will also be a vital part of its future.