Twitter's 280-Character Limit Seems Like a Momentary Distraction

Twitter's (NYSE: TWTR) recent announcement that it was doubling the character limit on tweets to 280 characters for almost everyone may have temporarily distracted investors from another round of poor earnings.

But is the move really worth cheering?

Why fix the one thing that wasn't broken?

While Twitter receives a lot of criticism, people generally seem to agree that it's easy to skim through a series of 140-character tweets. That limit forced people to work a little harder to condense their ideas and opinions into a few short sentences that followers could breeze through while on the subway or taking a break at work.

Twitter argues that it hasn't lost this unique factor since it began testing the 280-character limit in September and released it on a wider scale this month. It's now available in all languages except Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, where users weren't having an issue with the 140-character limit thanks to being able to say more with fewer symbols.

In a blog post, Twitter product manager Aliza Rosen said that once the novelty of the 280 characters wore off during the test phase, users still tweeted below 140 characters most of the time, so "the brevity of Twitter remained." In fact, only 5% of tweets sent were over 140 characters and only 2% were over 190 characters, she wrote.

In addition, when people needed to use more than 140 characters, they tweeted "more easily and more often" because they didn't have to work out how to make their point in fewer words, Rosen wrote.

What's working in the short term?

Before expanding the character limit, 9% of tweets in English were hitting the character limit. Lots of time was spent editing, the company said, and many people abandoned tweets before they were sent. After the 280-character limit was enacted, the number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped to 1%.

Twitter also claims that users who had a higher character limit received more engagement from followers through likes, retweets, and mentions. Even more exciting, people who got the increased character limit started to spend more time on the platform.

Will it work long term?

However, considering the data was collected during September and October, when only certain Twitter users had access to the increased character limit, the jury is still out as to whether it will really improve the user experience.

When Twitter first started allowing certain users to test out 280-character tweets in September, users had a field day. Many who received the special character limit celebrated their newfound freedom by penning creative, humorous tweets, such as by adding in useless words or by tweeting one letter per line.

Now that the novelty has worn off, things in the Twitterverse seem to have gone back to normal. The journalists, celebrities, and comedians of the world -- as well as one American president -- continue to tweet up a storm, but it's Facebook and Instagram that are seeing eye-popping jumps in number of users.

In order to predict what an increased character limit could mean for user growth at Twitter, one might remember that Twitter already went through a big redesign this summer. Twitter gave its app a more streamlined look with a side tab that directs users to their profile, Moments, or settings.

Yet despite the company's biggest redesign in years, revenue for the third quarter still fell 4% to $590 million. To Twitter's credit, the platform added 4 million monthly active users (MAUs) during the quarter to hit a new high of 330 million MAUs worldwide.

You could argue that the redesign and character-limit update still need time to marinate before there's a noticeable result on the top line. However, when you look at the numerous redesigns and updates that Twitter has undergone just in the past few years, you have to wonder if the company will ever happen upon that magical redesign that suddenly makes it the must-have news and social media platform it always wanted to be.

You can be an optimist and choose to see the small uptick in MAUs this quarter, as well as the small uptick in its stock recently, as a sign of a sudden long-term upturn at the company. Or you can be a realist and see it as another small uptick at a company that is still on an overall descending path.

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Natalie Walters has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.