The soul of the bird is at stake.
The soul of the bird is at stake.
Image: Brittany Herbert/Mashable

What can you say in 280 characters that you couldn’t in 140?

The world’s going to have to figure that out now that Twitter has signaled it will expand its infamous limit to just how many letters, numbers, spaces, punctuation, and emoji you’re allowed to fit into a tweet. Technically, the change is just a test at this point, seeded to a few (lucky?) users, but such a fundamental change to the service was big news, and any backtracking at this point would not be a good look for Twitter. So it seems likely that, going forward, 280 is the new 140.

The inevitable jokes격노 ensued, and have mostly continued in the first 24 hours since the announcement. There’s even a secret, though straightforward way, to get on the 280 train early, if you wish. But as the initial reaction dies down, and the new supersize tweets take hold, what does the picture of Twitter look like, and how attractive will it be to its users, both new and existing?

That’s surely the question Twitter is deeply considering as it moves forward with this change. And it answers the question of why the company’s doing it better than the pragmatic reasoning the company outlined in a 블로그 게시물.

The company line on the change is that, since languages like Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tend to need fewer characters to express the same thought than you’d need in English or other Roman alphabet-based languages, there isn’t really an even playing field on expression in the Twitterverse. But, on paper, the same goal would be served either by doubling the limit for Roman languages or halving it for certain Asian ones.

Certainly, Twitter wanted to avoid any accusations it was taking anything away from users in particular regions, though the thought exercise emphasizes just how arbitrary its character limits are. If we can tweet with 280 characters, why not 500? Or 1,000? Why have limits at all?

It’s hard to understate what a crossroads this is for Twitter, since monkeying with its character limit changes the nature of the service. Short news updates, bursts of wit and insight, the perfect emoji response — that’s what Twitter’s known for. Pushing the character count to 280 won’t negate those things, of course, but it pushes them out of the way to make room for some new things.

What Twitter is surely hoping for is that those new things may also bring new users. The 140-character limit always cultivated a certain type of person: Not just someone comfortable with broadcasting their thoughts, but also someone who understands that brevity was hard. It’s why media Twitter became one of the service’s most active user bases; using Twitter effectively requires writing skill, and who better to meet that challenge than a group that writes for a living?

Just how less punchy, crisp, and clever will a 280-character Twitterverse be?

It’s common knowledge, though, that Twitter has gone as far as it can with the chattering classes, and Wall Street has been very, very disappointed with user growth barely increasing since it went public nearly four years ago. In fact, those veteran users add a layer of intimidation to potential new users who may not be as great at compressing their thoughts.

Will those people be lured by the promise of more space? Who knows, but Twitter has tried pretty much everything else (except the ability to edit tweets) to boost user growth — why not this?

The dilemma Twitter is facing, though, isn’t just the age-old new users vs. power users question. It’s about the soul of Twitter itself: Just how less punchy, crisp, and clever will a 280-character Twitterverse be? Will the increase in engagement from reading longer tweets have an associated reduction in some other factor (immediacy, utility, or even simple fun) that will make the service less essential to users in general? And, most important, will that trade-off be worth it?

Those are the questions we won’t know the answers to until the 280 world has been with us for a while, but they’re the key to why Twitter is redefining itself in the first place: to be the most relevant to the most people.

Except with this change, it could lose sight of itself in the process. Regardless of where you come out on the character count, you have to admire the gamble.

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