(For those having trouble visualizing the difference, the second paragraph of this article has 140 characters; the third has 280.)
Twitter originally hit on the 140-character limit as a nod to the character limits placed on early text messages, when it was founded in 2007. SMS messages had a 160-character limit, and Twitter wanted users to be able to post messages via phone, with enough room for a username. It became a hallmark of the service — an encouragement to craft short, sweet messages and contribute to the free flow of conversation that became Twitter's main identifying feature.
Following an age of blogging, when lengthy rants or emo contemplation lit up the likes of LiveJournal or Xanga, the move to bite-sized thoughts felt different. But as Twitter expanded its ambitions to become more of an online town square, it became an important place to discuss complex ideas.
The company said in September that it was testing a new upper limit because languages such as English couldn't pack as much information into 140 characters as other languages, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean, which use can use characters that denote whole words. (Those languages will retain the 140-character limit, Twitter said.)
Many people had pointed out that 280 characters, despite what chief executive Jack Dorsey said in his own longer tweet announcing the change, just do not bring the same focus. The new limit is somehow too long to be brief, and still too brief to be meaningful. A heavily retweeted image following the announcement showed Dorsey's long tweet announcing the change edited down to fit in 139 characters.
Before the tests — which were limited to a few users, but easy to participate in thanks to third-party tools — roughly 9 percent of tweets ran right up against the 140-character limit. During the 280-character tests, that number fell significantly, according to a graph of English-only tweets provided by Twitter.
It shouldn't be a surprise that even a company built on language limitations has relaxed them, said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. “The tendency to start small and expand has been a relentless pattern with all of these apps and platforms,” she said, citing expanding ambitions at Facebook and others. Snapchat, she noted, was much faster to move away from its defining feature — ephemeral messaging.
The tests also didn't seem to bear out the dystopian predictions that Twitter would be flooded with longer messages and lose the economy of language that has become its hallmark. In most cases, it doesn’t seem like most people are actually increasing the length of their tweets; we have apparently been trained well. Only 5 percent of users went above 140 characters during the test, and only 2 percent ever went north of 190 characters.
Users had also worried that longer tweets would exacerbate Twitter's ongoing problem with harassment — more characters might mean more scope for abuse. On that front, we don't have answers yet. Twitter did not provide information on whether it had seen an increase in harassment on its site, due to the higher character limit.
But, Twitter said, while obnoxiously long messages weren't flooding users' timelines, the more verbose tweets did let people fire off messages faster and, the company believes, with less agonizing over each message. The tests showed that the feared negatives for Twitter did not come true, and the increased limits lets conversation flow faster — which means Twitter gets more use and can make more money.
So, it seems that 280 characters is good for business. And, in the end, that's really what matters to Twitter.