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10,000-character tweets won’t fix Twitter

You know what you call a 10,000-character tweet? An email.

In case you haven’t heard, it appears Twitter is considering lifting the 140-character limit that defines it in favor of a 10,000 character limit. The tweets, according to these reports, wouldn’t necessarily be seen in their entirety in your feed, but rather be accessible on another page after clicking “read more.”

Twitter co-founder and now CEO Jack Dorsey says the 140-character limit no longer matters anyway, because it was originally expected most users would update their status via text messaging services, which were limited to 160 characters. But it most certainly does matter. Twitter is associated as the social media network where we share tidbits in 140-character bites. Frankly, it’s a good thing to be known for something that sets you apart from someone else.

Which is the perfect segue to talk about Twitter being unlike other services. That used to be true, until it wasn’t. Now, Twitter is trying a lot of things to stay relevant in a sea of investor pressure to grow numbers, including a lot of things that feel a lot like Facebook. I can’t keep track of all of the stories all about how Twitter is under intense pressure from investors to grow its userbase, which was mostly stagnant in 2015. Meanwhile, Facebook continues to grow, reporting 1.01 billion daily active users on average for September 2015. That’s daily. Twitter says it currently has 320 million monthly active users. That’s monthly. In December, Instagram announced numbers that made it more popular than Twitter. Snapchat is quickly gaining ground and it won’t be long before it surpasses Twitter too.

So the goal here is to find a way to make Twitter more attractive to people and entice them to sign up. Fine. Here are a few that stand out.

• Twitter revamped it’s logged in and logged out page to be useful and show tweets as a way to entice people. It makes much more sense than showing empty space.

• Twitter launched Moments, which is a staff curation that’s supposed to let you know what you should be looking at on Twitter right now, and it’s targeted toward new or non-users rather than people who are already familiar and established. There aren’t any numbers of consequence to look at yet to call that a success or failure, but judging by the informal polls I’ve done and my own experience, I think Moments is a promising idea that’s incredibly poorly executed.

twitter-10000-characters-scott-kleinbergWhat does any of this have to do with 10,000 characters? I was hoping you knew the answer to that, because from my chair it makes no sense. Hardcore Twitter users like myself can think of plenty of things that Twitter can change or do better, but change the character limit is absolutely not one of them. You know one thing I’ve never heard and likely never will? “You know what would get me to sign up for Twitter? Giant tweets the size of books. Yeah that’s what I want.” And therein lies the biggest of Twitter’s problems: it really believes that emulating services that already exist will get people to pay attention to it. as Twitter bows to pressure from investors to grow, its answer seems to be to copy other platforms. Twitter is already looking more like Facebook every day and this change would be another step in that direction. But it’s not only Facebook, it’s also Medium and even LinkedIn — these are platforms that allow people to blog. And as you can see by reading this, I already have a place to blog.

So, why? Why would this be Twitter’s focus when there are so many other reasons people aren’t signing up?

Twitter has a huge problem with harassment and trolling. So huge that temporary suspensions were introduced last year for accounts that violate policies. So huge that Twitter started filtering notifications to prevent the garbage from getting through, but it always does. Online harassment is such a huge problem for women online in general that my friend and social media colleague Amy Guth launched a Kickstarter to raise awareness. And I see the kind of harassment Amy is talking about every day on Twitter.

Twitter also has a huge problem with diversity. The company hired a new head of diversity last month — a 50-year-old white guy from Silicon Valley. What a missed opportunity, and what a really bad move for a company where only 3 percent of employees are black or Latino. And those are public numbers, so everyone knows how bad it is. People aren’t going to overlook everything wrong because they get 9,860 more characters to share.

Some in the tech reporting world have speculated that Twitter is trying to create its own version of Facebook’s instant articles. There, clicking on a link to a story doesn’t take you to another website but keeps you on Facebook to read. The experience is smoother and faster, but people who work for publishing companies like mine are going to be skeptical because it takes away traffic to their websites. It’s part of the digital world in which we live, but if this is indeed what Twitter is doing, then it’s yet another example of copying off Facebook for all the wrong reasons. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but at what cost? Does Twitter honestly believe its fortunes lie in creating another Facebook-like network and that everyone is going to love it because it’s more like Facebook? That doesn’t work, because people already have Facebook. If they want to use Facebook, they’ll use Facebook.

And while I understand the great importance of growing the user base and driving new traffic from new people — it’s something I work on every single day in my job — alienating your core user is not the way to do it. It’s the same thing cable companies and cell phone companies do. They get you in with these great offers and then once that’s up they forget about you. That model angers users and reflects poorly on the brand, and that feels like what Twitter is doing. As someone who has been using Twitter every day for 8 years now, I should feel as though Twitter has the legacy user’s interests at heart and I don’t.

Because when you think about it, Twitter is working hard to please the customers it doesn’t even have yet and it’s willing to alienate the users it does have to get there. And worse, it thinks emulating services that already exist is the way to move forward.

That’s ludicrous.

Twitter is part of the lexicon. Twitter is an artform, and I happen to love it. I’ve told so many students and teachers that Twitter has forced me to become a better writer. I’m not an artist but I can craft a pretty darn good tweet. Hey, Taylor Swift has liked my tweets and Jimmy Fallon has responded to them. And William Shatner twice called me a Twitter nobody, although he meant it in the nicest possible way. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Twitter made a niche for itself early on in the social media game with its 140-character limit, and if Twitter thinks that’s suffocating growth now, it’s wrong. Twitter’s growth problems are well-documented, but size of the tweet isn’t to blame. When someone comes to Twitter for the first time, they’re lost. If you’ve ever signed into Twitter and felt like you were talking into a vacuum or having a really hard time finding people to follow, you aren’t alone. That’s why so many people sign up, take it for a spin and never come back. That’s something Twitter can and should fix.

Here’s the bottom line. No matter how Twitter decides to use its characters, whether it’s 140 or 10,000, that isn’t the answer to Twitter’s woes. The answer to Twitter’s woes doesn’t lie in its character count. Maybe it lies in its character.

You don’t have to like Twitter or even use it to have an opinion about Twitter. So let me know in the comments what you think about this impending change. And let me know what you think Twitter must do to survive. And if you need 10,000 characters to do it, I’m ok with that.

About Scott Kleinberg

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