Twitter's new character limits: A nod to Instagram?

Tweeters can now add photos or mentions without having them counted in the 140 character limit. Is Twitter trying to get more visual to mimic Instagram's success?

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo in Bordeaux, southwestern France on March 10, 2016.

Twitter has long carved out its niche in social media as a venue for brief, in-the-moment thoughts constrained to a 140-character limit. 

But the company announced Tuesday that this will change over the coming months. Now, "@names in replies and media attachments (like photos, GIFs, videos and polls) will no longer 'use up' valuable characters," Twitter's senior product manager Todd Sherman explains in a blog post. 

Removing @names from the 140-character limit "will make having conservations on Twitter easier and more straightforward, no more penny-pinching your words to ensure they reach the whole group," adds Twitter. The same goes for attached photos: "More room for words!" 

There have been rumors swirling for months around such a change, but Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey repeatedly denied them. 

"It's staying," Mr. Dorsey said on NBC's "The Today Show" in March, in reference to his company's economical, 140-character limit. "It's a good constraint for us. And it allows-of-the-moment brevity."

But the company's battle to expand, and keep current users engaged, may have helped turn the tide. Twitter has witnessed stagnant growth, compared to other social media platforms, and its shares have fallen more than 70 percent over the past year.

Many attribute this market funk to Twitter's lack of innovation since Dorsey created the site in 2006 as a status-sharing platform to fit the 160-character restraints of SMS messaging. Despite being the founder, Dorsey came on as CEO only in 2015, determined to reignite lagging user growth and economic value.  

Twitter's newest features, which could encourage users to attach more photos, may be a response to Instagram's serious marketing success as well. Although the now Facebook-owned Instagram was created four years after Twitter, in 2010, the photo-based site has seen marketing revenue that Dorsey's company desperately needs. 

Instagram advertisers benefit from twice as many ad clicks as other social media sites and its per-follower engagement rate for brands is 120 times higher than on Twitter. It's "no secret" that Instagram's success is largely due to "the overall cohesion of visual content" experienced and produced by the site's 75 million daily users, fellow media site HootSuite explains.  

After launching Instagram campaigns, Mercedes Benz saw a 27-point lift in ad recall and Coca-Cola saw a seven-point lift in positive brand association. 

"Allowing people to add images for free (so to speak) should encourage the continuation of a trend that has turned Twitter from a text-heavy platform to one nearly as visual as rival social media services such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat," says Slate's Will Oremus. "It's growing increasingly rare to see a tweet that's text-only, and this will make it rarer still."

And as expected, the announcement has been met with both excitement and frustration:

But links will still be included in the character limit – a rumored change that was also tossed around earlier this year. 

Twitter's new Retweet feature may be more unexpected. Users will soon be able to Retweet or Quote their own previous tweet, for "when you want to share a new reflection or feel like a really good one went unnoticed." 

Overall, Dorsey thinks the new update will answer complaints from Twitter users in both camps. 

"This is something that has been requested from people using Twitter for quite some time," Dorsey tells The New York Times. When focusing on the number of characters in a particular message, "then you're just thinking a lot about Twitter instead of what you're saying. We shouldn't make you think about Twitter." 

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