Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Jack Dorsey, who recently retook the throne at Twitter, has rightfully said his company needs to do more to appeal to the masses rather than just to the technology, media and celebrity narcissists who hang out on Twitter now. There's just one teeny hurdle: Most people still can't figure out why they need to use Twitter at all. And the company is considering a move that further muddies Twitter's appeal beyond its 1 percent.

The company may erase what has been Twitter's identifying feature -- a limit on posts to 140 characters, roughly the length of this sentence. Twitter is considering raising the cap to thousands of characters, perhaps as many as 10,000, according to my Bloomberg News colleague Sarah Frier. (Technology news publication Re/code reported the news earlier.) 

Losing Altitude
Twitter shares have lost ground and are trading below the company's 2013 IPO price of $26.
Source: Bloomberg

Part of the beauty of Twitter is how spare it is. It is low pressure, a chance to dash off a witty comment or a photo while you wait in line at the grocery store. Now instead of typing a sentence, people will have a sweeping canvas with which to work. You know what 10,000 characters is? It’s the length of family Christmas letters. People get writer's block just thinking about their Christmas letters. The tyranny of that blank page is just too much. For context, this column is about 3,400 characters.

Embracing tweets of short-story length may not hurt Twitter if it's an option most people never use. But it also won't entice more people like my mother, who used to ask me all the time why Twitter is useful for her. She has given up on that question and on Twitter. Sorry, Mom. And sorry, Jack Dorsey, because my mom isn't alone. 

More than 1.5 billion people use Facebook at least once a month, or about five times the number of Twitter users. Yet Facebook in the most recent quarter recorded a 14 percent increase in monthly users compared with those a year earlier. Twitter's user growth rate was a bit slower. The recent struggles with user growth have made investors pessimistic that Twitter can ever become a permanent feature of the Internet, or a solid business. 

Turbulence in Flight
Facebook has nearly five times as many users as Twitter. But recently, the growth rate of Facebook's monthly users has exceeded user growth at Twitter.
Source: Bloomberg
"Monthly active users" are people who use Facebook (or Facebook's Messenger) or Twitter at least once a month online or on mobile apps. Twitter MAUs count people who were logged into Twitter, including through third-party applications.

Twitter is clearly not working right now -- either as an investment or as a product-- and Dorsey is right to try as many things as possible to shake the company out of its torpor, even if that means changing fundamental elements of its service. New features like Moments, which give people a handpicked selection of Twitter posts centered on events like Donald Trump's new political ad, much more clearly address the "what the heck is this good for?" question. Moments may not catch on, but it's easier to see the mass-market rationale behind the effort. Twitter can't waste money and executive attention on projects that aren't central to its mission of appealing to the masses.

If the company raises the character cap, it is may merely be adapting to how its devotees are using the service already. Some of Twitter's most avid users -- notably Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen -- have skirted the word count cap by creating "tweet storms," or strings of Twitter posts that collectively make up a semicoherent whole.

Twitter has also adopted other tweaks and tricks created by its loyal fans, including the ability to check out photos, news articles and videos without leaving Twitter's virtual walls. At this stage, though, Twitter doesn't need to adapt to Marc Andreessen but to everyone else. That problem can't be solved with 10,000 characters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net