Twitter turned 11 years old this month. Like many 11-year-olds, it still has no idea what it's doing in the world.
The company on Thursday made a fuss about its latest "update": Users can now reply to tweets without others' user handles counting against the 140-character limit of their responses. This update makes it easier to follow conversations, the company claims. And as Twitter proudly notes, this is the third time the company has eased up on its character limit since the return of CEO Jack Dorsey.
This update is also the latest example of just how little Twitter appreciates that its unwavering loyalty to the 140-character limit is fatally harming its product.
Social networks are inherently made for sharing with others on the internet. You use social services to distribute content. Often, this is content created by others whose links you pass along to your friends or followers. But you can also use social networks to create and share your own content. Social networks need users to share and create a lot of content so they will keep coming back to the service. The longer you stick around, the more sponsored content (read: ads) a social network can monetize off you.
On Facebook, you disseminate this content via your friends. On Twitter, you can in theory distribute content to anyone on the internet who shares an interest in the same topics as you.
Many of Twitter's struggles--it's terrible at attracting new users, its advertising revenue is declining--stem from the core fact that it is a rather poor tool for sharing and creating content, especially when you compare it to Facebook.
Twitter says its change to @-replies is about conversations, not content per se. But every time someone responds to a conversation, new content has been created. To be sure, it's a fairly rudimentary form of content considering the types of media users can now share on social--Snapchat has been killing it with augmented reality, while Facebook just this week gave users the ability to live stream 360-degree videos.
But even on this front, Facebook is eating Twitter's lunch.
By removing replies from the character limit, Twitter is no doubt making its service more user friendly, but this update doesn't solve any actual problem while creating new ones for those vanishingly rare new users who were just starting to figure Twitter out. In fact, it's unclear if Twitter understands why many users want the character count lifted in this particular case, so let's spell it out for the company: Having a conversation on Twitter is a frustrating experience.
Just look at this conversation I was having recently about the Raiders' move to Las Vegas. Following the conversation is confusing. It's marginally less confusing than it was before, but it's still far from a joyful experience. Making matters worse, the official thread of the conversation as presented by Twitter is actually missing a few tweets. This is a conversation by three Twitter power users. Imagine being a casual Twitter user and trying to keep up. You can't, and that's why you don't come back to Twitter.
Easy fixes--if Twitter wants them
Twitter could fix this problem in a few ways. Off the top of my head, Twitter could double its character limit. It could also remove character limits on tweets that are clearly responses. That would allow users to have more fluid conversations. The company has already done this with its direct messaging feature, and since then, DMing on the service has become delightful.
But what Twitter should really do is simply get rid of its 140-character limit.
This limit was only created due to the limitations of technology in 2006. This is the equivalent of Spotify and Apple Music only streaming short albums out of respect to vinyl's limitations in the 1920s. Twitter's character limit is making it difficult for users to create thoughtful, engaging content on its service, and there is no justification for it other than corporate nostalgia. The point of Twitter is to share content, especially the kind created around live events, and a 140-character limit does nothing to facilitate that. SMS
The problem of conversations on social media is one that Facebook solved years ago, and in stark contrast to Twitter, Facebook has continued improving on it without drawing attention to those updates.
Recently, for example, Facebook rolled out a new feature that populates your posts as windows at the bottom of your browser so users can engage with each other in conversation over real time. The presentation looks a lot like that of the window that you see when you are having a private conversation over Facebook Messenger, and that's because the whole point of the update is to make it easier for users to talk to one another.
"We've heard from people that they would like an easier way to participate in conversations on a post while they are still in News Feed, so we are rolling out a new option that opens up a window when someone comments on your post, replies to your comment, or tags you in a comment," a Facebook spokeswoman told Inc. "You can always hide the conversation or turn off notifications from within the dropdown menu of the post."
But the content-creating restraints of Twitter's 140-character limit go beyond conversations. Take any instance where you have a complex idea that you want to share. You need a service where you can write at length. For someone like me, that's no problem. I have Inc.com, but for an everyday user or amateur writer, Twitter has no solution.
Facebook has Facebook Notes, and LinkedIn has its publishing feature. Both are elegantly designed and easy for anyone to use. If you want to share something complex on Twitter, you're forced to do a "tweetstorm," where you simply throw out a bunch of tweets in quick succession and hope to God Twitter does a good job stringing them together for the sake of your followers. I put tweetstorm in quotes because it's not even an official feature. That's just what Twitter users are forced to do when they want to share something of length with their Twitter followers. It's either that or writing a note on your notes app and tweeting a screenshot. (Twitter co-founders Dorsey and Ev Williams could get over themselves and make an obvious marriage of Twitter and Medium work, but the company has a terrible habit and history of letting personal differences get the better of it.)
Twitter is holding onto its precious 140-character limit like it's the one quality that keeps users coming back. If anything, this hesitation to change is exactly why the beloved social network is struggling so mightily.