Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Poking the bear: Twitter should eliminate its 140 character restriction

140 characters. This is the number that Twitter will both live by, and die by. Its simplicity is on the one hand, part of the reason why Twitter has exploded the way it has, but on the other hand, I believe it will ultimately limit Twitter’s potential US audience (and equity value). Sooner rather than later, I think Twitter should eliminate its 140 character restriction in the US.

First, let’s remember the reason why Twitter was restricted to 140 characters: SMS. Twitter was envisioned as a SMS service to communicate with small groups. Because SMS had a 160 character limit, Twitter took 20 for itself and the 140 character limit was born.

This turned out to be a genius move. In a world where efficiency and attention are in short supply, there was something immediately refreshing about Twitter and its character restriction. It created a culture in which people got to the point. You had to. So what started as a limitation necessitated by SMS, became an integral part of Twitter’s identity and culture even as people in the US increasingly consumed tweets via apps or the web. SMS or no SMS, 140 characters it was.

But has the 140 character restriction outlived its purpose, at least in the US? Increasingly less people use SMS to tweet. And 140 characters is, well, restrictive. Facebook, by comparison, is a free world. I don’t know about you, but I love the feeling of “tweeting” in Facebook. I don’t have to edit an update by changing “great” to “g8” or, I’ll admit, condensing two sentences into one. Add to that Twitter’s foreign language of @’s and #’s, and it’s just easier (and less intimidating for a newbie) to type a status update in Facebook than Twitter.

Consumer adoption is all about easy. How do you make a web or desktop as stupid simple to use so that it can jump the shark from techies to mainstream? Facebook wins that battle easily. Meanwhile, Twitter’s adoption has stagnated.

Don’t get me wrong (before I lose all my twitter followers!): Twitter and Facebook are fundamentally different platforms. For one, you can’t follow people asymmetrically in Facebook like you can in Twitter. Add to that the way Facebook threads comments versus the @ nomenclature of Twitter, and Facebook lacks the feeling of an open community that Twitter has in spades. But my premise here is that people either primarily Tweet or write Facebook Status Updates, not both. While it’s not a zero sum game, Twitter should want to get the Facebook users that are already posting status updates to make Twitter their primary base. Once you do, you get sucked in by Twitter’s community.

To this end, there are several things Twitter can do to improve Twitter’s ease of use. One of those things is to eliminate the 140 character restriction.

What would happen if Twitter eliminated its 140 character restriction?

First, let me admit that the Twitter community would throw a sh*t-show. Changing how RT’s were done was enough. Can you imagine eliminating the 140 character restriction?! Hah! But Facebook has gone through these types of backlashes several times (remember when they rolled out the newsfeed?) and look at where it is now. So let’s imagine for a second that Twitter decided to throw caution to the wind and eliminate the restriction. Would the characters hit the fan?

Facebook should be a good indicator. There is no character restriction (or even concept of characters) on Facebook. Even so, the longest status update I see in my newsfeed right now is exactly 200 characters. Could that message have been pared down to 140? Sure. But it’s not like people are writing novels in my news feed, making me wish I could enforce a 140 character restriction on them. I doubt I have a unique Facebook experience. Instead, I think a “status” culture has been established. Facebook status updates aren’t a diary or a blog entry. Neither is Twitter, with or without any character restriction.

Even if all of a sudden the floodgates opened and Twitter became overwhelmed with new members writing long tweets, you don’t have to follow those people. And anyway, if some of the people you do follow start breaking the 140-character rule, is that really more annoying than the automated spitter you see in your stream? I would take a 200 character tweet over a new badge update (~64 characters) any day.

What it comes down to is, would the elimination of the 140 character restriction (at least in the US) ruin the Twitter we know and love? I just don’t think so, and I’ve been wavering on publishing this post for a couple weeks now. In the end, what makes Twitter so enjoyable is not really its short-and-sweet, get-to-the-point feeling. It’s about the community, the conversations and interactions. That won’t change if people can tweet more than 140 characters, but the community should grow.

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