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After spending the past year throwing things against the wall, it seems as though Twitter’s planned changes are finally sticking.
The microblogging platform announced on Tuesday that it would be amending its trademark 140-character limit. Instead of including GIFs, photos, and mentions in that total, the only characters that will count now are actual text. In addition, the service will finally eliminate a pesky bug that’s long been among users’ biggest complaints: If you were to tweet at, say, Ashton Kutcher using the trademark @ symbol at the beginning of your tweet, the message will only show up in his timeline. Your followers won’t be able to view it. To work around that design flaw, users had to get creative, typing a period first: “.@.”
That not only looks clunky, but the need to “hack” a service with clever cheats is part of the reason that a site that remains so earth-shatteringly influential has so publicly struggled with growth. Twitter might be the coolest kid on the Internet, but it’s incredibly alienating to sit at its table. The platform lacks intuitiveness, and after CEO Jack Dorsey took over the reins last year, the company has grown more complex—trying desperately to catch up with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire at a time when it should be striving for ease and simplicity.
What Dorsey has finally realized, after a year of growing pains, is that users don’t want them to build a better Facebook. Instead they want a Twitter that’s designed to meet the needs of today’s media environment, one that’s changed drastically since Twitter first launched in 2006.
What Twitter did not anticipate was the rise of GIFs on the Internet, which has transformed the way we express ourselves online.
Originally, Twitter’s 140-character limit was designed with SMS in mind. On your Motorola flip phone or—God forbid—your Nokia Tracfone, SMS allows users to send 160 character messages at a single time. That formula, which was designed for a vastly different media environment than the one we live in now, has changed little since, despite rumors that Twitter would be allowing tweets up to 10,000 characters in length. After widespread outrage from users following such reports, the company backpedaled on those plans (but hasn’t ruled it out altogether).
What Twitter did not anticipate was the rise of GIFs on the Internet, which has transformed the way we express ourselves online. In May of last year, Facebook unveiled an update users have been craving for years. Posting bitmap images to Facebook had previously been clunky and headache-inducing, but the social media site announced that change was coming, finally allowing users to share GIFs natively on the service.
While Twitter has long outpaced Facebook when it comes to the way GIFs are integrated into the platform, the fact that—until recently—images detract from the character total indicated how desperately an update to its core model was needed. Anecdotally, encouraging users to post more GIFs and photos in their tweets serves a key purpose for a site struggling with engagement: They help convey a story in a way words cannot. Although the microblogging platform was built on text, the realm of the visual has provided some of the service’s most powerful moments—including the young protesters of the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter engaged in civil disobedience. Words start conversations, images start revolutions.
In embracing the power of the image, Twitter appears to be finally catching up with its core audience.
In embracing the power of the image, Twitter appears to be finally catching up with its core audience. Twitter Senior Product Manager Todd Sherman wrote in a blog post, “This will make having conversations on Twitter easier and more straightforward.”
Here’s a scenario. You’re chatting with two friends on Twitter about the NBA playoffs. Two other acquaintances are interested in your opinions as to whether the Golden State Warriors can bounce back from their recent defeat. Now you have five people on Twitter all discussing the merits of Stephen Curry at the same time, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for actual discourse. You’ll be looking at 100 characters left (which, for reference, is the exact length of this sentence). Can you really build a conversation on that?
Making these seemingly small and incremental—yet absurdly overdue—changes is exactly what Twitter should be focusing on if it wants to attract new users to the site. In the past year, Dorsey’s team has unrolled just about every gimmick imaginable in order to reignite interest in the stagnant service: Twitter Moments brought a Reddit-like news digest to the site, while the platform killed its “favorite” option in favor of a heart. In addition, the platform integrated features like Periscope and polls into its timeline.
Those announcements were precisely the “think big” maneuvers that Dorsey’s appointment to the Chief Operating Officer position in 2015 suggested. In 2013, Dorsey earned the title of “Innovator of the Year” from American Banker, and that branding seems to have stuck. Twitter, under his stead, has been desperate to prove that it’s the next-level platform of the future—rather than Facebook’s doleful second fiddle.
Twitter works best when it dares to go small, focusing its efforts on improving overall quality.
But as the widespread elation over the changes to its character structure show, Twitter works best when it dares to go small, focusing its efforts on improving overall quality. Sure, simplicity will help tear down some of the barriers to entry for new users, but a narrow, focused Twitter is better for everyone—even those who have stuck with the service throughout the ups and downs of the past decade. “Maybe Twitter is not meant to be the most popular band in the world,” blogger and Twitter early adopter Anil Dash told the New York Times in February. “Maybe it’s meant to be merely Pearl Jam and not U2, and maybe Twitter could find equilibrium as a company with an enterprise value of merely $5 billion.”
Twitter, which has currently flatlined at a user base of 300 million, plans to unroll other new features slowly in the next few months. It’s difficult to say whether these amendments will help the company reach a whole new base of users, but for the moment, the announcement appears to have done what Dorsey and his team have recently been struggling to do: Remind its most loyal followers why they signed up for Twitter to begin with.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of "The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions" and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang.