A 10,000 character limit would kill Twitter, but there are ways to save it

Twitter executives are reportedly considering changing Twitter’s 140 character limit to a 10,000 character limit - turning Twitter into a blogging service and feed reader.

For me Twitter is the world’s best cocktail party. I can walk in to a room full of people that I have specifically chosen. For me that room includes politicians, activists, journalists, scientists, engineers and academics (in a wide variety of fields), authors, musicians, actors, directors and others from all over the world. I can chat with them or simply ‘wallflower’ and hear what they are all talking about - then I can leave, anytime I want to, without bothering to make any excuses.

Allowing all of those people to write novellas, rather than make simple 140 character statements would destroy the experience. Even if I decided not to delete my account, I would have to cut the number of people I follow by about 90%.

According to Twitter it wouldn’t look much different, the main Tweet would serve as a kind of headline, with a “more” button to reveal the rest but you can already do that with Twitter. You can attach images and link to articles, blog posts, videos or other content on the web. The problem with the “more” approach is that it makes replying difficult. How are you supposed to reply to a tweet or retweet it if you haven’t read the full text?

The 10k character limit would slow Twitter down, make it less social and interactive and would make most people wonder why they weren’t just using Facebook, Tumblr or Google+ all of which allow for long posts and have a variety of other features.

The problem that Twitter is trying to address is that the service does not have enough users, or at least not enough to make the board happy. The company’s stock price and rate of new user growth are both pretty anemic and those with a great deal of money on the line are unhappy about it.

Unfortunately for them, Twitter isn’t for everyone and is unlikely to see any huge surge in growth, ever. If you look beyond the active users, you will find a graveyard of abandoned or rarely used accounts and there have been many high profile departures over the last few years. Still, by trying to appeal to a larger audience Twitter executives risk losing many of their current active users (about 320 million).

Twitter is also unlikely to see a huge growth in ad revenue. There simply isn’t a place in the interface to put many ads and promoted Tweets are seen by most as an annoyance - causing the companies paying for them to be seen as annoying in turn.

The good news is that Twitter is seen as important and even essential by its hard core users as well as by any number of companies and news agencies. Because of that there are a few ways to save it, and make it better without requiring a massive influx of new users.

The first possibility is to start charging for Twitter accounts. I know that in the age of ‘everything is free’ this is an abhorrent though to many users and tech executives, but with Twitter it could conceivably work. Netflix is making a killing at a rate of about $10/month per household. Twitter, which doesn’t need to create or licence content and doesn’t need the massive infrastructure that video streaming requires could charge considerably less - $2-3/month perhaps.

The selling point for users would be that, overnight, virtually all of the spam accounts and most of the trolls would vanish. Currently setting up a new Twitter account to send out spam or harass other users takes just a few minutes and costs nothing. If that changes, if it costs even $20/year, most of Twitter’s greatest annoyances would simply vanish.

The second possibility is selling it. With its anemic stock price, a suitor or suitors could conceivably be found to take over. These would presumably be companies who had an interest in Twitter’s survival that went beyond its current revenue stream.

One possibility is a media organization or collection of media organizations taking ownership. Live Tweeting television shows is seen as a very important aspect of success in modern television and ‘what’s being said on Twitter’ has become a regular part of the news cycle for most broadcast and print news organizations.

News and entertainment organizations drive ratings, generate stories and make money from Twitter and so would have a keen interest in keeping it going, even if it was revenue neutral.

Another possible owner for Twitter is Google. The company has never seemed very happy with the performance of Google+ and for good reason. By acquiring Twitter, the company could double down on its social media plays and could add features that would actually improve Twitter. By integrating G+ and Twitter (without fully merging them).

Google could add things like “hangouts” and video and voice chat to Twitter. Using a user controlled list of “friends”, you could see someone pop up on Twitter and give them a call. People who share interests could disappear into a hangout to talk away from the general Twitter audience and the number of users could go up substantially.

Twitter’s search function could also by greatly enhanced by linking it to Google search, Google news and Google news alerts.

Either of these approaches could lead to a better Twitter for the platform’s users and would preserve it for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, management’s current desperation to try anything and everything to lure in a billion new users will see Twitter go the way of MySpace and Friendster by the end of the decade.
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