My Twitter Is Bigger Than Yours

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A major change has been made for users of the popular social networking and micro-blogging site Twitter, with some suddenly able to post longer "tweets". Twitter’s founders have released the significant development in a most uncharacteristic fashion: quietly. With no formal announcement of the new feature, Tweeters are slowly finding out about it for themselves.

Since the launch of Twitter in 2006, individual messages or tweets have been limited to 140 characters. No longer: the change has upped this by 10 per cent to 154 characters — but only for some users. The initial rollout of "154" has been assigned to just 10 per cent of active Twitter accounts.

This new feature is set to be hugely significant and while it has been live for over two weeks, it seems to have flown under the radar. Twitter users have found out about it by accident, with some noticing they are now able to send longer tweets.

So where does this extra 10 per cent come from?

The development in the 1990s of a uniform SMS platform established a limit of 160 characters of text. The developers of Twitter settled on an individual tweet limit of 140 characters, keeping the extra 20 for the user’s unique address. Analysts say that Twitter now appears to have unrolled a feature which assigns an unseen 4 digit pin — an authenticating code for each Twitter handle with the API from the user’s computer or mobile device — before approving the tweet.

It’s understood that Twitter co-founder and CEO Biz Stone was keen to announce the 154 character tweet at the annual Austin hipster fest, South By Southwest, but was pressured to withhold details. Stone ignored all queries about "154", instead drawing attention to the — let’s face it — insignificant "geo-location" feature.

Now it has emerged that Twitter was advised by festival organisers to delay the announcement for fear of a backlash among tech-savvy SXSW attendees. The concern was that the estimated 10 per cent of "154-enabled" participants at SXSW would be the target of anger from the other 90 per cent in attendance. Fear of the publicity fallout kept Biz Stone and other Twitter representatives tight lipped.

The addition of 14 extra characters means the ubiquitous and often difficult "140 character" limitation may soon be a thing of the past. But is this really a new feature? For some time the Twitter app, Twitlonger has allowed users to post tweets as long as they like — but the message is posted on a separate Twitlonger site.

Just over six months ago Twitter launched a verified accounts service, which allowed celebrities and other public figures to distinguish their Twitter identity from the wealth of fake Twitter accounts. Those in the know expected the verified accounts to be the first enabled to post 154 characters per tweet. They were wrong: the lucky 10 per cent have been randomly selected. There are some notables who have been granted a little extra, including teen pop sensation Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) and Twitter’s own chief scientist Abdur Chowdhury (@Abdur), both of whom have proudly posted tweets 154 characters long.

The impact this will have on traffic which currently measures on average 50 million tweets per day is yet to be confirmed. The continuing popularity of Twitter suggests that 140 characters hasn’t been a real limitation to many users. Tech commentator Charles Leadbeater is one observer who has welcomed the change, stating "10 per cent may seem insignificant but as Twitter proved with the social unrest in Iran, every tweet counts. This change has the potential to be extremely empowering."

However Brandon Gaines from Watch on Advertising thinks the silence from the upper echolons of Twitter points to an obvious and more ominous explanation. Gaines is convinced the additional 14 characters is all the space required for Twitter’s long awaited ad platform.

So what will 10 per cent more really mean for the Twitter community? Is it a Trojan horse or a bird in the hand? Is it a tweet in wolf’s clothing? As more and more users sign up to the micro-blogging platform, an official announcement from Twitter HQ can’t come soon enough.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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