CEO and founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, sent out a tweet last week that was notable due to the number of characters included in it. Anyone who’s ever used Twitter and many who haven’t know that Twitter’s defining characteristic is their 140 character limit. Jack Dorsey’s tweet read: “This is a small change, but a big move for us. 140 was an arbitrary choice based on the 160 character SMS limit. Proud of how thoughtful the team has been in solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence!” The tweet contained exactly 280 characters and conveyed two things: You can do more in 280 characters but it’s still quick and to-the-point as well.
Because the 140 character limit was so foundational to Twitter, many Twitter users were quick to respond that such a move would spell the end of Twitter which as already underperformed by Wall Street’s expectations. One thing is for sure: it’s a huge gamble. On the one hand, it can entice new users who were turned off by the stingier character limit of the older model. On the other hand, it can water down the Twitter experience for long-time users and cause many to stop using the platform. Most likely we’ll see some of each but whichever occurs bigger may will determine the future of Twitter.
Twitter’s 280 character limit and the future of SMS
As stated in Jack Dorsey’s tweet introducing the new character limit, the original 140 character limit was chosen because the standard text message protocol (SMS) established by the major cell phone service providers limited texts to 160 characters and Twitter wanted to replicate that experience of communicating with fewer words. Internet-based messaging apps like iMessage (Apple’s proprietary texting app), Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp have already ditched the character limit and embraced additional features not possible with the SMS protocol. Consequently, many aren’t even used their smartphone’s built-in text messaging feature instead opting to use apps developed by third parties.
Looking to stay relevant, the major telecommunications companies are looking to replace the SMS protocol which has remained relatively unchanged since the early 90s. The new protocol, tentatively named Rich Communications Service (RCS) would do away with the character limit and add many other features that other messaging apps have already been using for years. This poses a question similar to the one Twitter is facing, but for SMS marketers: will the option for longer messages water down the channel, or can brands embrace it to do more with SMS marketing? We may find out as early as next year when the major cell phone service providers begin rolling out RCS.
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