Twitter expands beyond 140 characters

Photos and @username references won't be part of sending limit

Twitter has announced another tweak to its text-message system that will give users greater space to send messages alongside pictures.

The change, which will be rolled out over the next few months according to a blog post by the company, will retain the company's 140-character text limit but not count links to photos or people's usernames toward that limit.

The move is a logical one, as the service has gradually evolved as a way to send pictures and videos to people, and has expanded beyond a primarily one-to-one sending service.

By including those links as part of a self-imposed limit, Twitter was restricting the ability of its users to send understandable messages. For example, if someone sent a pictures to several friends over the service, it would leave them with virtually no room to actually say anything.

The limitations of 140 characters – which was originally imposed because the service was designed to work as a form of text-messaging and there is a hard limit on standard SMS messages – have been lauded as Twitter's unique selling point, with users forced to be brief. However, brief becomes unusable when actual messages are reduced to one or two words.

The change also comes on the heels of the company's decision to lift the limit on messages sent directly to another user (direct messaging).

It's worth noting, however, that character-exclusion does not apply to links to things outside of Twitter's services, such as articles or videos on other websites. Which suggests Twitter may be trying to copy Facebook (again) by creating a walled garden.

Bigger problems

While the change has been met with general approval by Twitter users, the tweaking of the company's service only raises more concerns over the company's future direction.

The social media service has not managed to keep pace with other companies such as Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram – both in terms of profits and growth in users – in fact, Twitter is losing users in worrying numbers. It has also failed to address the many issues that users have with the service, including the sense of being overwhelmed with messages, and the ease with which individual users can be targeted. And then there's the fact that millions of Twitter users are not real but automated bots.

On the business side of things, Twitter has yet to find an effective way to monetize the free service. And with the exception of "moments," it has not successfully expanded its basic offering despite having hundreds of staff on hand and years to come up with new ideas.

Despite its huge brand awareness and the fact it has been in business for a decade, Twitter is still nowhere near profitable. The company has lost $2bn in the past five years. Its share price is half what it was when it went public, and that is down 70 per cent from its high.

Part of the problem has been the highly dysfunctional relationship between the company's founders, which has resulted in frequent management turnarounds and instability. Its current CEO is also the CEO of another company.

And all that is despite what is a fairly obvious and compelling use of Twitter – capturing and broadcasting events live as they happen. The current management's efforts have disappointingly relied on using Twitter's cash on hand to buy third-hand sports clips in the hope of attracting users back.

This latest tweak, while welcome, is still very, very far from a game plan. And without effective controls it may even make things more unpleasant for existing users, as spammers seek to take advantage of the changes to blast more people with unwanted ads. ®

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