One of Twitter’s most sacred rules of the road is its 140 character limit. But this week, CEO Jack Dorsey strongly hinted that tweets could soon get a lot longer.
— Jack (@jack) January 5, 2016
Twitter’s problem is that it isn’t growing fast enough to please Wall Street. Apparently, the company thinks opening the gates to longer tweets might make it more appealing to more people. That puts Twitter in a tricky situation familiar to many tech companies: how to attract new users without alienating the old, or at least not too many of the old.
Technology execs love the word pivot. It’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s what they call making a big change in how they do business. Striking down its famous character limit could certainly earn Twitter pivot points. But there is potential danger.
“Probably their biggest risk is that they are changing the thing that most identifies them,” said Karen North, professor of digital social media at University of Southern California. “All of the sudden you think, ‘well, why am I doing this? It doesn’t do anything special or whatever was special about it is no longer there.’”
Twitter has 320 million users a month. Some are already tweeting about how much they hate the idea of a 10,000 character tweet. But Twitter’s pokey growth has allowed Instagram to race past it. And it is way behind Facebook. While some hard-core Twitter users will freak if such a change comes, they may not matter in the end.
“I remember when Amazon first went beyond books. There was a big hoo-ha among their users,” said Constance Helfat, professor of technology and strategy at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “It worked out fine.”
Netflix changed from DVD by mail to streaming and came out ahead after some early bumps. And this kind of change is not just a tech thing. It even happens in the dusty old world of cable TV. Bravo used to be a channel that showed ballet. Now it’s a snake pit of conniving housewives and cutthroat chefs. Nobody at Bravo worries now about the classy viewers it lost after shedding its skin.
Twitter may well do something dramatic to go after a whole new audience, which may or may not give it the kind of growth it has promised investors. And if current users don’t like it, they’ve got a platform where they can take their complaints worldwide.