Should Twitter Change Their Character Count?

Twitter is considering changing the character count allowable in each tweet. Or, rather, in the words of Re/Code, the blog that broke the story about Twitter’s character limit shifting, “Twitter is building a new product” that will allow users to do this.

The language being used to describe this formal shift seems to imply that this will be some kind of pay-per-character play. This actually makes a lot of sense.

Up to this point, Twitter has been in a seemingly never ending struggle to become profitable like “all the other” big Social Media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn). They were profitable for like one quarter at the end of 2013. Otherwise they’ve been hemorrhaging money for their entire history as a publicly traded company and even as a private entity.

The company’s ability to pull in gross revenue has increased consistently, but their expenses have always increased more rapidly than their ability to bring in money. As a result their net profit has been negative year after year. Check out this depressing graph of Twitter’s net income over the past five years.

Twitter's Net Income over the past five years
Data from Marketwatch

Twitter allows users seek and attempt to connect with anyone on the platform. Technically, according to the terms of service, you’re not supposed to connect with individuals you don’t know. But in practice–so long as you’re not using shady hacker techniques to autofollow thousands of people per day–pretty much anyone is fair game. That makes the platform appealing to underdog brands who want to overcome their competitive disadvantage by brute force. Unfortunately, the click-through rate or “impact” of messages sent out on Twitter is vanishingly small compared to what you can expect on Facebook, especially in terms of CPC or cost-per-click.

To an extent, Twitter’s whole brand, appeal, and value-prop for users–brevity, concision, openness–has been antithetical to profitability. The character limit is exactly what users have found so appealing. In a world overflowing with information and feedback, Twitter allowed its users to engage with a high-volume of content and a large number of individuals in a relatively short amount of time. And this streamlined experience is exactly what has throttled company’s trying to exploit the platform to outshout their competitors and deliver their message to the consumer.

The general consensus of users seems to be that changing the character limit for private messages enhanced user-experience, but that changing the character limit for mainstream content will ruin Twitter’s platform for everyone.

There is an art to getting your message across within the confines of Twitter’s character limit. It forces the user to focus on essentials to keep the character count down. To some extent the Twitter character limit is like the modern version of the haiku, the minimalist format pioneered by Bashō, a minor samurai living in 17th century Japan.

Basho Haiku Twitter Character Limit
Basho meditating, courtesy of Wikipedia

Félix Fénéon is another poet said to be a primordial innovator of the tweet in the days before Twitter, according to The Guardian. Like the latter-day #poets of Twitter, Fénéon also labored under a stringent “character limit.”

A disruptive innovator, Félix Fénéon obeyed Twitter's character limit before Twitter even existed. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

In 1906 Fénéon wrote the faits divers column at Le Matin–essentially faits divers filled in empty space between articles in the days before InDesign. Readers loved Fénéon’s deadpan presentation of incidents from daily life. Sometimes dryly humourous, but more often simply poignant, these three-line stories were masterpieces of compression.

He tells the story of a dude who dies while bowling in 90 characters. “On the bowling lawn a stroke levelled M André, 75, of Levalloi. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.”

He shaves the story of a murder down to 111 characters. “After he had been knocked out, Bonnafoux, of Jonquières, Vaucluse, was placed on a railroad track, where a train ran him over.”

He tells a story of domestic abuse in 128 characters. “Caged, tortured and starved by their stepmother, the three little daughters of Joseph Ilou, of Brest, now rescued, are skeletal.”

He paid attention to word order. “An unidentified maker of paste jewels from the third arrondissement was fishing in a boat with his wife at Mézy. She fell. He dived. Both gone.”

Note that all of the fait divers quoted above fit inside of Twitter’s character limit. What’s that you say? Fénéon should have his own Twitter account?

He does actually.

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The larger point is that there is an art to tweeting. This fact is at once the blessing and curse of Twitter’s corporate, publicly traded existence.

[Image via Chris Jackson/Getty Images]