According to Twitter’s well-worn origin story, the 140-character limit for tweets was born out of the now bygone restrictions of text messaging. The founders wanted Twitter to be used via SMS; at the time, messages were capped at 160 characters. (The extra 20 accommodated user names.) A few years after the company’s founding in 2006, text message limits had disappeared, but Twitter’s restriction remained. It became a cultural institution. People like working within its constrictions; it’s almost an art form for some. But today, Twitter announced that it’s toying with the idea of upping the character count to 280. And just like that, Twitter became that annoying jackass on Twitter who screenshots something from the Notes app to try to get more words in edgewise.
The news provoked an immediate reaction, not much of it good. #280characters became a popular hashtag; users bemoaned what would happen if President Trump had even more runway; even Jack Dorsey’s biggie-sized tweet announcing the news got worked over. In general, the news did not go over well. (Though, some cheered the idea that a few more characters might curtail the #thread.)
But is this actually bad? It’s just Twitter, right? Sure, but here’s the thing. While all social media services change—Instagram gets new filters, Facebook integrates bizarre emoji reactions—Twitter isn’t just trying out a new feature; the company is basically altering one of the last pure, long-standing rules of online culture. Granted, Twitter has tested the boundaries of the character limit for a while now, but it never fully broke them. Millions of users have condensed their witticisms to 140 characters or less for over a decade now; removing that one constant just feels wrong.
Twitter has been under a lot of scrutiny lately—for not handling harassment very well, for not letting users edit tweets, for providing trolls with a platform and playground. It deserves most of those criticisms, but they stem from things Twitter didn’t do, issues the service hasn’t responded to quickly enough. For the expanding-character-limit initiative, the critiques focused squarely on something Twitter did that it didn’t have to. They focused on Twitter screwing up the one thing it’s always done right.