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On Twitter Going Beyond 140 Characters

Earlier today, a report by Re/code's Kurt Wagner indicated that Twitter is building a feature to let users share text updates longer than 140 characters:

Twitter is building a new feature that will allow users to tweet things longer than the traditional 140-character limit, and the company is targeting a launch date toward the end of Q1, according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans. Twitter is currently considering a 10,000 character limit, according to these sources.

Re/code first reported about the feature in September, noting how it would enable users to share long-form content on the service.

After much speculation on Twitter and tech blogs this afternoon, Twitter's own Jack Dorsey weighed in, funnily enough, with a textshot – a screenshot of text apparently taken from the Notes app on iOS (as Jason Snell points out, a popular way to share text beyond 140 characters).

Because the textshot itself isn't embeddable as text, here's a plain text version I OCR'd with Project Oxford via Pythonista on my iPad:

At its core Twitter is public messaging. A simple way to say something, to anyone, that everyone in the world can see instantly.

We didn't start Twitter with a 140 character restriction. We added that early on to fit into a single SMS message (160 characters).

It's become a beautiful constraint, and I love it! It inspires creativity and brevity. And a sense of speed. We will never lose that feeling.

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.

What makes Twitter, Twitter is its fast, public, live conversational nature. We will always work to strengthen that. For every person around the world, in every language!

And by focusing on conversation and messaging, the majority of tweets will always be short and sweet and conversational!

We're not going to be shy about building more utility and power into Twitter for people. As long as it's consistent with what people want to do, we're going to explore it.

And as I said at #flight, if we decide to ship what we explore, we're telling developers well in advance, so they can prepare accordingly.

(Also: I love tweetstorms! Those won't go away.)

It's undeniable that Twitter's constrained writing environment has bred creativity and succinct information sharing over the years. And it's understandable why, being the 140-character limitation a defining characteristic of Twitter, many are reacting to today's news with more than a hint of skepticism (and mostly downright pessimism centered on "Twitter losing its way"). I love the 140-character nature of Twitter, too.

But, it's also undeniable that people have been demanding ways to share longer text messages appended to a tweet and have been relying on undesirable workarounds such as unsearchable, unselectable text (textshots) and chained replies that are hard to follow (tweetstorms). Tweetstorms aren't going away (and I can see how they can make some sense as one shares multiple thoughts on the spur of the moment), but note some important aspects from Jack's message: text search and highlights. Both of these aren't possible when text is shared as a static image (not to mention the accessibility downsides for users who require the ability to zoom and have text read aloud by software).

Imagine Twitter's full archive of indexed tweets in search and the ability to quote tweets, apply that to Twitter Notes (that's what I'm unofficially calling this upcoming feature), and you could easily end up with a new form of microblogging happening right inside people's timelines. Imagine how top highlights from Notes shared in your timeline could be scanned by algorithms to surface the most popular passages of text shared by people you follow on any given day. Imagine if you could highlight other people's Notes and quote specific parts of them.

Based my own speculation, what I'm envisioning is the ability to attach a Note to a tweet much like you can attach a photo or video to a standard 140-character message. The Twitter apps would receive a new Note button to write text in a minimal writing environment, and the normal 140-character tweet would serve as a sort of "introduction" to the Note, which would be accessed by tapping a preview or a 'Read More' button in a tweet. I feel like such a solution would be more elegant than writing a long tweet free of the 140-character limitation and then automatically cutting text off before showing the full text (remember Twitlonger?).1 It would also retain a basic constraint in the timeline as tweets will always be 140-character long and everything else will be an attachment to them.

I'm getting ahead of myself, but given Jack's comment on the matter, I'm willing to bet Twitter Notes (again, just my personal nickname) are happening relatively soon. Unlike other recent additions to the service, I want to believe that third-party developers will be able to support the feature in their clients (Jack seems to suggest as much) and that the iPad won't be left behind again. I may be disappointed when the day comes, but if done right (see Matthew's points here) and as long as Twitter Notes are intended as attachments for regular tweets with real text, I don't see why I would be against them.


  1. Although that's what Re/code is reporting today as a not-final design as " Twitter is currently testing a version of the product in which tweets appear the same way they do now, displaying just 140 characters, with some kind of call to action that there is more content you can’t see". That sounds like an automatic cut-off to me, and I hope Twitter does something more elegant than that. ↩︎

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