The 140-character limit on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) is a holdover from its days as an SMS service. It allowed just enough space for a single message, including a username up to 18 characters, a colon, and a space to fit inside the standard 160-character text message. But since smartphones became ubiquitous, the 140-character limit has been expanded upon, with the ability to add photos and videos, Twitter Cards, and Retweets not counting against the limit.
Still, the 140-character limit remains a defining characteristic of Twitter. But Re/Code reports the company is working on a feature to expand the character limit and allow users to publish long-form content. This could help Twitter expand its audience and compete with several growing publishing platforms, including Facebook (NASDAQ:FB).
Getting the most out of Twitter
Many of Twitter's longtime users adore the 140-character limit. It inspires creativity, and it makes for easy-to-browse comments from the accounts users follow.
But there are several workarounds that power users take to work around the character limit. Users can use tools such as OneShot, which allows them to insert an image of text. Another common strategy is the "tweet storm" of multiple tweets to be read in succession, which arguably is used to draw attention more than as a workaround. For the average new user, however, these strategies require quite a bit of extra work and can be confusing.
Enabling users to create more long-form content directly on Twitter more easily should make the service more accessible to new users. And that's key if Twitter wants to continue growing its user base beyond the 316 million monthly active users it currently sports. CEO Jack Dorsey and CFO Anthony Noto both made it clear during the company's second-quarter earnings call that Twitter hopes to expand its user base to the mass market.
Facebook, meanwhile, recently revamped its Notes feature to compete with other long-form publishing platforms such as Medium and Tumblr. The new format borrows aesthetically from Medium with a clean design and big header pictures. More importantly for the company, it's designed to keep users from linking to outside blog posts as long-form content publishing comes back in vogue.
Twitter may be looking to do the same with its long-form publishing tools to reduce the amount of tweets posted that link to outside sources. But Twitter's user base is more heavily concentrated in one specific area that may make a long-form publishing format even more valuable for the social network.
Twitter as a source for news
Management is constantly touting how valuable Twitter is as a source for news, often breaking news stories before major news outlets. However, there's currently no way for journalists on Twitter to provide a full story, as they're limited to 140 characters. Often, they'll simply link to a developing story on their publisher's website.
Bringing more of that content onto Twitter would help make it a better source for news. It could increase the efficiency of journalists on Twitter while keeping Twitter users within Twitter's walled garden. The latter factor enables Twitter to better monetize its existing user base, while the former makes it more attractive for potential new users.
With a long-form publishing tool, Twitter can compete with Facebook's Instant Articles, which the company has had plans to expand since its launch in the spring. Instant Articles allow Facebook to host publishers' content on its servers to enable much faster load times. Twitter is reportedly working on similar functionality, but a long-form publishing tool could provide more exclusive content to Twitter and make it more attractive to journalists and publishers.
Maintaining strong relationships with journalists and publishers is key to Twitter's success. Zuckerberg & Co. has been aggressively courting both with several new tools, including Instant Articles, Signals, Mentions, and more. For Twitter to be the source for real-time information, it needs to provide all the tools necessary to make it a better platform for journalists to discover and report the news. Native long-form publishing could help fend off other publishing platforms.