Re/code reports that the 140 character limit on Twitter is going away (or at least, being replaced with something like a 10,000 charcter limit.)

CEO Jack Dorsey all but confirmed it with this tweet of a picture of some text explaining why the limit exists, and the benefits of removing it.

Naturally, Twitterers are freaking out about the change, as they do whenever Twitter changes.

The thing is, Twitter has a big cultural footprint. Even if you have never signed up for Twitter, if someone asks you to "describe something in a Tweet", you probably know what they mean.

"Describe something in less than 10,000 characters" doesn't quite have the same ring to it…

But although this is a change that seems like a big shift in direction, its really just a continuation along a path that Twitter has been on for a long time. Really, since the introduction of Cards in 2012. Twitter used to just be text; there were a few ways to squeeze more characters into the limits (hashtags turned into a link to a Twitter search, URLs got auto-shortened) but the basic service was the same.

What changed was when they added ways to embed photos — instead of linking out to content beyond 140 characters, Twitter began pulling it into the platform — but keeping the physical size of the tweet the same; you had to click the tweet to reveal the photo.

Later, the tweets got bigger, accomodating a "preview" of the photo.

Then they expanded to be able to include video.

In other words, the big change has already happened. When a tweet was 140 characters, you could read it in the space of a second or two — meaning you could skim through a hundred tweets in a couple of minutes. On the Tweetie app, before Twitter acquired it and turned it into the official Twitter application (on the old, small iPhones), 4 or 5 tweets would fit on screen at once. Today, on a big iPhone 6s Plus, only 2 tweets with pictures will fit on the screen.

Have a look through your Twitter feed right now, and see how many of the photos are actually necessary; how much of the relevant information in the tweet would you lose if the pictures went away? From a quick skim through my own feed, the answer is virtually nothing.

But what the pictures add is less tangible. Anyone who has worked with blogs or web design knows that people like pictures; even if its irrelevant to the story, people are more likely to read stories that have pictures next to them. So by adding pictures, Twitter is adding "engagement".

They have said so themselves;

  • Photos average a 35% boost in Retweets
  • Videos get a 28% boost

A glance through my own timeline shows that this is a lesson learnt by many 'brands' on Twitter; stock photo after stock photo that adds nothing to the headline tweet in terms of information, taking up a bigger chunk of my screen (and therefore diverting attention away from other tweets in a way that isn't related to the quality of the content.) They dont do it because its good, they do it because its working.

Ultimately, this seems to be turning Twitter into something slightly different to what it used to be – and perhaps what 'old school' Twitter users are familar with. And thats basically a 'closed' version of an RSS reader; filling the space I think is still left behind by Google Reader.

Dave Winer mentioned the other day;

Google really hurt the blogosphere with the dominance of Reader and then its shutdown. It's good to pay attention to that now. When you start relying on a dominant product, everything is good, because it hasn't gone away yet. You don't feel the pain until it goes away.

But ultimately, I think its so that people with Twitter accounts can do what they have been doing for ages now, which is use it to try to write blog posts.

Basically, long tweets become the same as Facebook instant articles. No need to click through and wait for a website to load. Text remains accessible, sitting in Twitter's platform (and through Gnip). The Twitter feed becomes more like an RSS reader (click headline to reveal content), except totally closed. Annoying screenshots of text go away, along with tweetstorms. Clicking a popular link that fails to load because its a popular link on a website not equipped to deal with popularity hopefully starts to become a less common occurance…

I think New Twitter is probably more like Tumblr than anything else. I wonder if Yahoo will notice?