16 May 2016 | 10:37 pm
On Monday, Twitter did something previously considered impossible: It let word of a new feature slip—and it made its own users happy.
According to a Bloomberg News report, Twitter will soon stop counting links and photos against the 140-character limit of tweets. Right now, including either a URL or a photo in a tweet costs 23 characters, essentially foreshortening tweets to a mere 117 characters. If the new feature takes effect, all tweets will now run to the full 140.
Twitter still hasn’t confirmed the new feature.
Twitter users responded in characteristic hyperbole—but in uncharacteristic joy. Search for tweets linking to the Bloomberg report and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a negative reaction. “THIS IS THE BEST,” cried one. Another: “This pleases me.” Or: “MY PRAYERS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED. PLEASE BE TRUE.”
The only real criticism—echoed by many—is that the development was long overdue.
That’s true. Famously, Twitter began as a one-to-many SMS broadcast service, so it imposed technical limits on how long a tweet could be. One of these limits was the 140-character length requirement. By keeping tweets under 140, Twitter could tack a 20-character username into a text and keep within the 160-character SMS text limit.
But Twitter liberated itself of other technical constraints of SMS texting long ago. Almost all of its users view the service through a desktop client or a smartphone app. And as the writer Paul Ford has detailed for Bloomberg Business Week, a tweet as an entry in a database already far exceeds 140 characters. As far as Twitter-the-software is concerned, tweets tote all sorts of metadata as they travel around, including the user’s avatar, the number of hearts that a tweet has, and (sometimes) its tweeter’s latitude and longitude.
The 23-character penalty for attaching an image or a URL has also gotten increasingly severe. When Twitter began shortening all links posted to its service, it only docked 20 characters for each shortened URL. Within a couple years, it had lengthened the shortened URLs to 23 characters.
With this change, Twitter will take a step that it has so far avoided, as it moves the main content of a tweet out of the main 140 into its metadata. But by one measure, it has also already done that. Since 2014, it has permitted users to post four photos to a tweet—even though the tweet itself would only contain one photo-associated URL.
If Twitter really does ago ahead and adopt the feature, it might next consider cutting more ancillary content from tweets. Perhaps usernames will not count against the critical 140, or hashtags will be stricken. (The company has hinted at taking either of those steps for years.)
Regardless, if Twitter users keep tweeting happy thoughts, the new feature will emerge as the kind of feel-good news story that the company badly needs. It hasn’t had many of them lately. In January, rumors emerged that the company would allow 10,000-character tweets (really, it was going to allow attached block quotes) and users rebelled. On its earnings call last month, an investor asked Twitter executives whether bad press was hurting its prospects. There’s been a sense for many years that the company doesn’t really know how to continue to advance its product and can only avoid its main users.
Of course, expanding the 140 won’t fix Twitter’s core problems: diminishing ad revenue, stagnant user growth, and a popular understanding that the service is more about public fighting than semi-private frivolity. And despite 36 months on the public market, profitability still eludes the world’s third-largest social network.
But maybe it’s working on those issues too—or, at least, bringing in new minds to consider them. On Monday, Twitter announced that it would add Debra Lee, the CEO of BET, to its board of directors. Though its user base is fairly equally gender-split, and it includes an unusually high number of people of color, Lee will only be its third female director and its first black director. She has her work cut out for her.
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