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Twitter says now we can all use 280 characters

After a trial run, Twitter is officially doubling its signature 140-character limit. Meanwhile, larger issues remain.

When you think about Twitter, a few issues pop up: nonstop harassment, Russian propaganda and a president threatening potential nuclear war.

So why is the company focused on doubling its character count for tweets to 280 characters from its original 140?

That's the question the company is likely to encounter -- despite some possible fanfare -- after announcing Tuesday it is officially doubling its signature 140-character limit for all users following a "successful" trial run in September with select users.

Here's an example of a 140-character tweet (left) and a 280-character tweet (right) as they appear in a Twitter timeline.

Twitter

"We are making this change after listening and observing a problem our global community was having (it wasn't easy enough to Tweet!), studying data to understand how we could improve, trying it out, and listening to your feedback," Twitter product manager Aliza Rosen wrote in a blog post

Most people should automatically see the 280-character feature. If not, they can update their mobile app or refresh twitter.com on their computers. People tweeting in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese will remain at the 140 character limit for now.

The move comes at an awkward time for Twitter, which has been facing criticism and pressure from shareholders, Congress, President Donald Trump and everyday people who use it. Among the most-discussed complaints have been concerns that the company negligently mishandled the daily harassment some people experience on its service and that it allowed propaganda on the platform that illegally influenced the 2016 presidential election.

It's probably no surprise that the company's user count has stalled at 330 million accounts, and that's after Twitter admitted to having overcounted user numbers for three years.

Concerns about Russian interference in the US election led congressional leaders to grill Facebook, Google and Twitter on the details of how that meddling happened and what the tech giants are doing to stop it. Fearing federal regulation, the companies have vowed to make changes.   

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So, again, what does 280 characters have to do with all this? The announcement could briefly divert negative attention from larger problems, said Kelley Heider, a crisis communications expert at SSPR, a public relations firm that often works with tech companies.

"They change their narrative in the news cycle by responding to user feedback," she said.

But there are potential pitfalls to the new character count, Heider added, particularly if people use the greater length to post even more inflammatory tweets.

"It will be pretty interesting to see what President Trump does with it, for sure," she said.

For years, Twitter has toyed with the notion of changing its 140-character rule, which was established around the time the company was created in 2006.

Twitter says historically 9 percent of tweets in English hit the 140-character limit, but the volume falls to 1 percent when 280 characters are available.

Twitter

In the past two years, Twitter has ditched the limit when people send direct messages to one another. It's also relaxed limitations on photos, videos and GIFs, and replies to other users. The company said Tuesday that historically about 9 percent of tweets in English hit the 140-character limit. When the 280-character trial run began, the volume dropped to 1 percent.   

Many users tweeted to the full 280-character limit because it was "new and novel," Twitter's Rosen wrote in her blog post. Once the novelty wore off, she said, about 5 percent of tweets sent were longer than 140 characters and only 2 percent were over 190 characters.

Users who had more room to tweet received more followers, retweets, likes and mentions, she added.

When the 280-character trial began, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in series of tweets that the original 140-character limit was arbitrary, inspired by the 160-character limit for SMS messages over cellphones. He expected "the snark and critique" about the change and said most users likely won't use the full 280 characters.

"What matters now is we clearly show why this change is important, and to prove to you it's better," he said. "Give us some time to learn and confirm (or challenge!) our ideas."

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