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Twitter May Drop 140-Character Limit: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Daniel B. Kline – Jan 9, 2016 at 8:16AM

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The idea is just being tested, but it would me a major change for a company which was built based on brevity.

In some ways, Twitter (TWTR -1.35%) dropping its 140-character limit would be like Kanye West abandoning the scowl, or Starbucks deciding it no longer needs to sell coffee. 

But, even though there are media reports that new CEO Jack Dorsey has plans to drop the company's signature feature -- which he acknowledged in a post on the site -- it's not quite as big a change as some may fear. Also, while it is being tested, Dorsey's post made it clear that no official change has been decided upon.

If this change were to occur, it would follow the company deciding to eliminate the 140-character limit on direct messages. That, however, only changes how people interact directly with each other on the site. It does not alter the core brevity of public posts that has been the hallmark of the social media company's brand since its inception.

The dropping of the character limit would be a major change for the stumbling social player, but there are positives as well as negatives to the potential move.

#140isenough has been trending on Twitter. Source: Twitter.

The good: It's only going to show 140 characters
While the social media company is testing dropping the 140-character limit for Tweets, it's not going to change the look of its website. Instead, Re/Code reported that Twitter plans to still display only 140 characters, but offer "some kind of call to action that there is more content you can't see."

Once a user clicks on the button, he or she would then see the full post. "The point of this is to keep the same look and feel for your timeline, although this design is not necessarily final," sources told Re/Code.

In many ways, this is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, where longer posts would be accommodated, but not forced upon users. That would also give people a reason to continue Tweetstorms -- those flurries of related posts people use to get around the 140-character limit -- which Dorsey professed to love in his note.

The bad: This does not address the real problem
Twitter's core issue is not the inability of its users to post long messages; the company's big problem is that it has trouble monetizing traffic.

Longer posts might lead to more traffic and increased engagement, but that will only produce incremental revenue gains unless the company can find better ways to monetize. Its chief rival, Facebook (META -0.93%), had similar problems but has turned things around dramatically. The most important factor in that has been the social media leader solving its mobile revenue problem.

In Q3, mobile advertising revenue represented approximately 78% of ad revenue for Facebook, up from 66% of advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2014. Twitter conversely actually had 88% of its Q3 revenue come from mobile, and any turnaround will likely come from focusing continued monetization efforts, not tweaking post length.

Twitter, like Facebook before it, might be able to make more money from its users, and signs point to that happening. In the third quarter, the company saw revenue jump 58% to $569 million. That's good, but it's a rounding error compared to the $4.5 billion Facebook made in Q3.

Fiddling with character limits is a distraction that does not solve Twitter's core issue. It's arguing about logo color or user interface when the real problem is getting advertisers to pay for the existing traffic.

The ugly: It's sacrificing your identity
Social media companies are not David Bowie or Lady Gaga. The track record of them reinventing themselves has not been good. Remember the Justin Timberlake MySpace reboot? What about the various attempts that have been made to make Classmates.com relevant again and the sad failures of so many social players in reinventing their brands?

Changing the character limit isn't adding a new feature or tweaking design -- it's a huge change to what has always been the core of the company. The 140-character limit is essentially Twitter's elevator pitch, and removing that takes away what makes the company something beyond just another Facebook variant.

Peter Bright of Ars Technica explained it eloquently in a column on the technology news site:

Some dude named Shakespeare once wrote: brevity is the soul of tweet. Smart fellow. The 140-character limit is not merely some incidental feature of Twitter; it's the very essence of the service. The mandate to be concise means that Twitter distinguishes itself from abundant conventional blogging platforms. Tweets can be observations, jokes, questions, or carefully distilled ideas, but they cannot be lengthy treatises or complex arguments.

Dorsey argued that people currently take pictures of text to post in order to get around the limit. Upping the character count would eliminate the need to do that and would make the text searchable, indexable, and more easily discovered. That's true, but it would also change what Twitter is in a way the brand might not be able to survive.

It's easy to see why Dorsey is at least considering the change, but even in the form being tested, it's a bad idea. Twitter has problems, but keeping people's posts brief is not one of them. Changing this solves lesser issues at the cost of everything that makes the brand special.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook. He enjoys the challenge 140 characters presents. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook, Starbucks, and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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