Twitter's #longtweets aims to make sure you never need to leave

Jack Dorsey

On Tuesday, Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive, Jack Dorsey, made the strongest hint yet that his company is considering dropping the 140-character limit for tweets, after reports that the firm had been testing an alternative product with the ability to send messages of up to 10,000 characters.

The tweet, which came after a report from technology site Recode that “longer tweets are coming soon to Twitter”, drew criticism on the site. Some users warned they would leave if it was implemented, while others expressed fear that the spirit of Twitter would be corrupted by users having the ability to post screeds of text.

In a post on the site, Dorsey explained the company’s thinking: “We’ve spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it.” (Dorsey’s post was shared in the form of a screenshot of some text).

“Instead, what if that text … was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That’s more utility and power.

“What makes Twitter, Twitter is its fast, public, live conversational nature. We will always work to strengthen that. For every person around the world, in every language.”

Of course, Twitter’s product decisions aren’t entirely driven by a desire to give users what they want, when they want it. If they were, the company would have created working anti-harassment tools, no promoted tweets and the ability to force all your friends to like and retweet that one selfie you took looking really good before heading out on Saturday. Instead, we’ve got polls, Moments and 10,000 character direct messages.

That’s because Twitter is a company, which has a bottom line and an unending drive from its shareholders to make an ever bigger profit (or, at least, an ever shrinking loss). So its priorities, as ever, are those that serve that bottom line.

Some do so directly: Twitter’s advertising division is responsible for enticing brands into spending money to promote themselves on the platform, in the form of promoted tweets, follow suggestions and sponsored trends. The more ads sold, the more money Twitter has.

Similarly, the more brands that use Twitter, the better the prospect of monetising their use, so features which please brand use-cases get a nudge up the priority chart. That helps explain why 10,000 character direct messages were implemented rapidly and smoothly, and made available to third-party developers: companies appreciated the feature, which let them have more in-depth conversations with their customers over the social network.

But just as important to Twitter’s bottom line – and likely more important in the eyes of its shareholders than actual revenue – is growing the service. The more users Twitter has, the more money can be made from them. And compared with Facebook, a company whose future user growth is limited by the actual population of the Earth, Twitter has ample room to grow.

That desire is what prompted other products from the company, including Moments, a curated stream of news stories told through tweets. The idea is simple: Twitter is loved by its power-users, but baffling to a new member. Where’s all the good stuff? Who should they follow? Moments aimed to solve that by putting it directly in front of them (and the ability to sell sponsored Moments to advertisers doesn’t hurt either).

But 10,000 character tweets doesn’t seem to help either of those goals. It’s certainly not going to do a thing for user growth. While the 140 character limit is a weird anachronism from Twitter’s roots as an SMS-based service (leaving 18 characters for a username, and one each for a colon and space in a 160-character text message), it’s one of the most well-known aspects of the site. What’s more, the best evidence suggests that the average message is short no matter what the character limit: Facebook posts average around 65 characters.

Instead, there’s a third goal that longer posts achieve, and it’s one that most people will associate not with Twitter, but rather with Facebook: keeping people on the site.

It’s pretty nice to have hundreds of millions of users, but it doesn’t help you rake in the cash if their engagement with your site is to login, scroll a bit, then click a link and spend the rest of their session reading an article on a newspaper’s website (and seeing the newspaper’s adverts, to boot). But if those pieces are pasted in to Twitter itself – initially by platform neutral publications such as Buzzfeed, but eventually by any outfit seeking to drive social engagement – then Twitter can own the whole process from start to finish.

Facebook has shown a similar drive to entice publishers into its walled garden. The most notable is its Instant Article programme, which sees the site hosting content in order to deliver it with loading times of a fraction of a second (the Guardian has published several instant articles on Facebook); but it also frequently tries to encourage reporters and publishers to simply post directly into the site itself.

Twitter has taken on Instant Articles directly, pairing up with Google to launch the open technology: accelerated mobile pages, or Amp. But that still leaves content offsite, and power in the hands of the publishers.

Posting a 10,000 character article, or maybe more, directly to Twitter, on the other hand, is all the site could want. Throw in some advertising slots amid the characters and publishers who have embraced Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Amp may be persuaded too. Which is why it’s a safe bet that Dorsey and co won’t be backing down on this one.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 6th January 2016 13.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010