When Twitter was born in 2006, it was designed to be used via wireless carriers’ text-messaging services. They were (and are) limited to 160 characters. So Twitter’s creators reserved 20 characters for a user name, leaving 140 characters for the post–not yet known as a “tweet”–itself.
At the time, it was a straightforward accommodation of a technical restriction. But the 140-character limit soon became the single most famous thing about the service. A decade later, it remains a daily fact of life for anyone who ever runs out of characters before concluding a tweet.
Now Twitter is planning to rejigger how it counts characters. Rather than lifting the 140-character ceiling, it’s removing photos, videos, GIFs, polls, quote tweets, and @names from the calculation–a change which offers more flexibility, but also makes the 140-character count even more canonical, not less so.
Which makes now as good a time as any to look back at the history of the most iconic tech limitation since MS-DOS’s 640K barrier.
July 2006 TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington writes about a new service–initially called Twttr–and gives it a guarded thumbs-up. He doesn’t even bother to mention the 140-character limit, perhaps because the service in its original form was meant to let you share the briefest of updates with friends. (The example tweets he mentions: “Hungry” and “Cleaning my apartment.”)
January 2007: Twitter users are already using Twitter to express frustration at its 140-character limit.
July 2007: Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey muses on the 140-character limit.
January 2008: A service called Tweet140 encourages you to craft tweets that are as close to 140 characters as possible–the type known among Twitter obsessives as twooshes.
April 2008: Hacks such as Twitzer let wordy people get around the 140-character limit.
August 2008: Would-be Twitter killers are already trying to capitalize on the demand for more than 140 characters.
June 2009: An independent conference about Twitter kicks off in New York. Its name: 140 Characters.
October 2009: Early Twitter employee Dom Sagola publishes a style guide to the social network. Its title: 140 Characters.
November 2009: Twitter introduces an official retweet feature that, among other things, conserves characters by allowing you to retweet without needing to save characters for the @name of the person you’re retweeting. (Before it came along, I tried to keep my tweets to 121 characters or fewer, so that others could retweet them by adding a “RT @harrymccracken” at the start.)
January 2010: “Twitter” is named as the word of the year for 2009, and Twitter cofounder Biz Stone seems to approve of how the honor’s judges explained the service.
Spring 2010: The ideal length for a tweet is 240 characters.
…unless it’s 160 characters.
…or possibly 200 characters.
February 2011: Popular third-party Twitter client TweetDeck introduces Deck.ly, a rogue feature for breaking the 140-character barrier when tweeting with other TweetDeck users. The following May, Twitter acquires TweetDeck, and–shocker!–kills Deck.ly a few months later.
Also in February 2011: ReadWriteWeb‘s Richard McManus helpfully explains why Twitter must raise its character count beyond 140 characters.
…which inspires The Next Web’s Francis Tan to helpfully explain why Twitter should never expand beyond 140 characters.
June 2011: Twitter introduces its own link shortener, building in a space-saving technique already widely used via services such as TinyURL and Bit.ly.
Although I expect blistering attacks from Twitter fans, I suspect that if Twitter did expand the character limit, people would quickly become acolytes. More and more, I see people resorting to hacks to get around Twitter’s limit—they split their tweets up into multivolume epics, they use services like TwitLonger to add heft, or they direct people to posts on Facebook, Quora, and now Google+. Expanding beyond 140 would make these tricks unnecessary, allowing more conversation and interaction to take place within Twitter’s friendly confines.
(In a twist I’d forgotten, Manjoo explains that he came up with the 280-character idea during an online dialogue with me…and that I expressed support, but may have been joking. I sure hope I was.)
Also in July 2011: Twitter aficionados such as Mathew Ingram push back on Manjoo’s proposal.
September 2013: Then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo defines his job in terms of the 140-character limit.
Early 2014: Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen popularizes the tweetstorm–the practice of breaking up a complicated thought into a sequence of numbered tweets, a format which both sidesteps the 140-character limit and has a poetry of its own.
January 2015: Dorsey (now Twitter’s chairman) defends the 140-character limit by pointing out how clever Twitter users have been about working around it.
August 2015: Twitter raises the 140-character limit to an expansive 10,000 characters–but only for direct messages.
January 2016: Rumor has it that Twitter is formulating a plan to permit tweets of up to 10,000 characters, though it reportedly wants to do so without eliminating the quick-hit feel of its timeline.
March 2016: Dorsey (now Twitter’s CEO) tells Today‘s Matt Lauer that the 140-character limit is staying and is “a good constraint for us.” That may not be a sign that Twitter will never allow more verbiage in some form. But perhaps it’s evidence that any change would come from introducing an additional type of content rather than by simply upping the character count.
May 2016 Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier reports that Twitter will soon open up some elbow room by eliminating photos and links from the 140-character limit.
Today: Twitter announces that it will indeed be removing photos (as well as @names, polls, and other elements) from its limit. Which remains–say it with me now–140 characters.