by Matt Kapko

Twitter’s tiny tweaks do little to address big issues

News Analysis
May 25, 2016
Consumer ElectronicsSocial Networking AppsTwitter

Twitter plans to make some changes to its social network later this summer, but the overdue modifications demonstrate the company's ongoing struggle to innovate.

twitter logo shattered glass
Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Twitter this week committed to making some long overdue changes designed to free up space in “tweet” messages so users can share more in each post. Usernames mentioned in @ replies and media attachments, such as photos, GIFs, videos and polls, will no longer count toward Twitter’s 140 character tweet limit, according to the company. 

Twitter has toyed with the idea of expanding space in tweets for years, and every time related rumors resurface, users lob criticism at the company for plans to undermine one of the platform’s defining attributes. The recently announced changes won’t be available until later this summer, and they are among the least disruptive options for adding space to messages. 

[Related: Twitter’s ‘Moments’ miss the mark]

“It’s always been anticipated that Twitter would give a little bit more margin for a little bit more expression in those 140 characters, and that’s certainly what they’ve done here, but very subtly,” says Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst and advisor. “It’s not going to have a huge impact on anybody but power users.” 

Twitter will also let you “retweet” and quote — or retweet with comments — your own posts, and it is changing the way it displays tweets that start with a username or @ reply. The awkward structure that requires you to place periods before usernames to ensure all your followers saw the tweets will be abandoned, and all of your followers will see tweets that begin with the names of users they may not follow, according to Twitter.

Twitter tweaks too little, too late

The latest changes may not be enough to engage current users and draw new ones. “These changes are simply overdue,” says Adam Kleinberg, CEO of advertising agency Traction. “They will eliminate some of the friction involved with using the platform, but they will do little to bring back the people who used to use the platform to manage their personal brands and are now embracing Snapchat.” 

During the past years, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other company executives repeatedly said related fixes were on the way, but basic engineering and design problems kept the company from delivering. Today, many critics believe Twitter has taken far too long to accomplish what should have been simple enhancements. “They have no clear vision of what they need to do to turn around the fortunes of the company, so they default to doing nothing,” Kleinberg says.

Twitter currently faces more challenges that are much more difficult to overcome than improved syntax for replies and enhanced user engagement. “For anyone that follows a substantial number of people, the feed is such a noisy stream of random crap that it is virtually useless,” Kleinberg says. “And if the items in my feed, as good as they might be, are presented as a torrential flow of content vomit, those items will be ignored.”

[ Related: Twitter beats out Verizon, Amazon for NFL streaming deal ]

Twitter’s prospects remain hazy because it is not a true social channel, but rather a feature or utility — something more akin to email or text than an actual place where users spend any real amount of time consuming content, according to Kleinberg. “They are valiantly trying to become a content destination with the introduction of Moments and their deal with the NFL, but that’s going to involve a fundamental shift in how people use the platform to succeed.”