Popular microblogging platform Twitter is in trouble, and the news just keeps getting worse.
The last week saw the departure of 4 senior Twitter executives: VP of Product, Kevin Weil, VP of Global Media, Katie Jacobs Stanton, head of human resources, Brian Schipper, and VP of Engineering, Alex Roetter. Jason Toff, head of Vine, has also resigned.
While no one could have predicted these particular resignations, it's been clear for a while that trouble is brewing: this announcement comes on the heels of record-low stock prices and declining user growth.
In their latest attempt to stimulate growth, the possibility of increasing the 140-character limit has been put on the table. This post will take a closer look at what changes Twitter is proposing, and other avenues Twitter may want to pursue to stay afloat.
Twitter's character limit is on the table
The 140-character limit we've grown to know and love (or at least tolerate), may soon be replaced with a more generous limit of 10,000 characters - or around 2,000 words.
Rumors of a change have been circulating for months now. Even now, Twitter hasn't officially announced the change: It was Re/Code who was first to report the news, and according to their sources, Twitter is making changes to the limit that will take effect toward the end of Q1.
Re/Code has also reported that despite the impending changes, tweets will continue to look very much the same as they do now, displaying 140 characters with a link to 'read more.' This would mean users' feeds would look and function very much like they do now, with the added option to expand longer tweets.
In a January 5 tweet, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey did confirm that changes are afoot. While he fails to release specifics, he does confirm that raising Twitter's 140-character limit is up for discussion. He writes: "We've spent a lot of time observing what people are doing on Twitter, and we see them taking screenshots of text and tweeting it. Instead, what if that text...was actually text? Text that could be searched. Text that could be highlighted. That's more utility and power."
At first glance, an expanded character limit seems like a slam dunk. As Twitter continues to lag far behind Facebook in terms of monthly active users - Twitter seems to have stagnated at around 320 million - any change is an opportunity for potential growth.
Conflicting views on #twitter10K
Many critics have been ruthless in their evaluation of the proposed change. A Morgan Stanley investors note tweeted out by @carlquintanilla goes so far as to refer to the move as "desperate," and as an attempt to keep users on-site: "[The new character limit] seems desperate as recent product innovations like 'Moments' have not invigorated user growth, and Slate thinks the "Beyond 140″ feature is a plan to host content inside [Twitter's] walled garden rather than linking to blogs and other websites."
Anyone wanting to read further criticisms of the impending change need not look further than a quick search of the #twitter10k hashtag. The general sentiment seems to be overwhelmingly negative, with users fearing that an expanded character limit will remove one of the only elements that differentiates Twitter from other social networking sites.
At the same time, Twitter has come under fire in the past for maintaining what some consider to be an overly-restrictive limit. In fact, some critics have suggested that such a short limit may have been a major factor in the hindered user growth in other countries.
In a Telegraph article from September, Carl Miller, Research Director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, writes, "As it went global, Twitter looked for users outside of the United States and, crucially, outside of the English-speaking world. Suddenly, the 140 character limit took on a new, probably unforeseen but increasingly important significance. In some languages 140 characters is half an essay, whilst in others it's barely enough to clear your throat."
Whether this disparity between languages has caused Twitter's slowed growth or not, Twitter is clearly hoping #twitter10K will be the magic bullet to get their growth back on track.
'Moments': An effort to jumpstart growth
With serious concerns about Twitter's profitability (or rather, lack thereof), this isn't Twitter's first attempt to encourage growth.
Twitter's 'Moments' a feature released in October, was one such attempt. Here's how it works: By clicking on the Moments tab, users can view all the most important news and stories from the day. This might include breaking news, sports, entertainment or anything else making headlines. In other words, Moments is a roundup of the most important news and information shared on Twitter that day.
According to Twitter, the feature is intended to help users find the most important content, regardless of who they follow: "Every day, people share hundreds of millions of Tweets. Among them are things you can't experience anywhere but on Twitter: conversations between world leaders and celebrities, citizens reporting events as they happen, cultural memes, live commentary on the night's big game, and many more...Moments helps you find the best of Twitter as easily as tapping an icon--regardless of who you follow."
It's unclear at this point what effect Moments has had, if any, on Twitter's growth. Certainly if stock prices and user growth are the yard sticks, it doesn't appear to have had a (positive) impact.
What can Twitter do to stimulate growth?
There has been much speculation about the causes of Twitter's user decline, but the truth is, no one can point to a definitive cause. And without a specific cause, there can obviously be no quick fix.
While we know that Dorsey is planning to take on at least 2 new board members in the coming months (one of whom is reportedly a well-known media personality), it's unclear what effect this will have on Twitter's growth. I would also suggest that the person he brings on should be someone that uses and is passionate about Twitter. I personally was a little pissed as one of their last big hires didn't even use Twitter before being hired. If you're looking to hire an executive to grow your company, make sure they are passionate about your company before hiring them.
One issue that may be contributing to slow growth is that users can only see content pushed out by those who they're following. While this may be appealing to long-time users with large, established networks, new users may quickly get bored due to lack of new content as they aren't able to leverage it. But given that this is the precise issue Moments was seeking to fix, this doesn't appear to be the primary cause of slowed user growth and declining engagement.
Others have suggested that a serious change needs to take place in the way Twitter handles abuse and harassment. Introducing a consistent and transparent reporting policy, and taking a harder line when it comes to repeat offenders should likely be part of the platform's growth plans - regardless of what other changes they decide to implement.
I also feel Twitter needs to return back to its roots and figure out how people are connecting to each other and using Twitter. Figuring out what connections are between people and how content relates on Twitter could be a key towards growth. We're always looking for the most unique content for ourselves and connecting the dots in a more significant way could lead to a lot more advertiser interest.
Finally, it does seem clear that Twitter's ad offerings are in need of some significant changes. With big brands looking to get as much reach as possible, Twitter's 320 million monthly active users just can't come close to competing with Facebook's 1.5 billion.
Since they clearly can't compete in terms of visibility, they will need to look for other ways to attract and satiate large brands. This will mean that instead of playing the number's games, they will need to find creative ways to offer advertisers increased engagement. Offering longer-form (30-seconds or longer) video ads may be one such solution, as well as offering more ways for users to interact with brands via ads - such as we're seeing with conversational ads.
If the reports prove true, we should begin seeing expanded character limits within the next 2-3 months. It will be interesting to see what happens to Twitter's user growth and stock prices as the feature rolls out. Will #twitter10K be the feature that gets Twitter back on track or will the 10K derail the whole operation? Only time will tell.
What do you think of the 10K character limit? Do you think this will be the magic bullet for growth?