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Why Is Twitter So Scared of Removing Its 140-Character Limit?

By Evan Niu, CFA – Oct 10, 2016 at 2:41AM

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Maybe Twitter's potential acquirer will kill it once and for all.

Image source: Getty Images.

I've long been a critic of Twitter's (TWTR) arbitrary 140-character limit that it imposes on tweets. The company has been wrestling with this idea for over a year, following CEO Jack Dorsey's return to the company he helped start. Investors appear to want the change, as shares tend to jump whenever the notion comes up periodically. Twitter reaffirmed its commitment to the limit in March (even after it removed the limit in direct messages), but then hedged its bets by excluding certain things like @ mentions, media, and links from the limit in May. This last move implies that 140 characters really isn't sufficient.

As Twitter investors gyrate and ponder whether or not the company will be acquired, the more important question is whether or not Twitter will ever actually commit to improving its core product, starting with the removal of the 140-character limit. If Twitter ends up finding itself a new home, its new owner will need to grapple with the same problems of nonexistent user growth and a product that is difficult to use. Perhaps Twitter's prospective new parent will finally make the call that Dorsey never could.

The existence of two things serve as evidence that it's time for the limit to go.

Tweet storms

There should be no such thing as a tweet storm, but sadly they happen all the time. If you need to say something that exceeds 140 characters, clearly you have to tweet multiple times. But that creates a terrible user experience, since trying to track a string of 15 tweets appearing in your Timeline feed in reverse chronological order, interspersed with all other tweets, is just a giant pain.

Sure, Twitter now tries to link them together to make it easier, but even that is far less convenient than simply reading a straightforward paragraph (or more) of text.

Images of text

Another common practice on Twitter is sharing an image of text, which is specifically intended to bypass the 140-character limit. The prevalence of sharing an image that contains only text as an alternative to a tweet storm is also evidence that the character limit is silly, since people constantly bypass the limit using this method. It's also an unnecessary step for the user, who has to take a screenshot of text instead of just writing the text itself.

Baby steps

Twitter continues to incrementally take baby steps away from the 140-character limit, hoping that these minor changes will improve product usability. Why can't the company just make the call to abandon the limit once and for all? Hopefully, if Twitter gets acquired, the buyer will make the tough call. The bad news for Twitter is that most of the highest-profile bidders are reportedly dropping out.

Evan Niu, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Twitter. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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