Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Twitter Officially Announces Changes to Character Counting in Tweets

In a letter to shareholders earlier this year (PDF), Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey previewed some adjustments to the way replies would work in the future:

We are going to fix the broken windows and confusing parts, like the .@name syntax and @reply rules, that we know inhibit usage and drive people away.

The future is now, and Twitter is preparing to roll out some changes to replies and character counts. Ironically, for a company built on direct communication, Twitter’s explanation for these changes is rather longwinded and confusing:

We are simplifying the way that replies and attachments work on Twitter by moving some of the “scaffolding” of Tweets into display elements so they no longer count towards the character limit within the Tweet.

  • Replies: @names that auto-populate at the start of a reply Tweet will not count towards the character limit (but new non-reply Tweets starting with a @mention will count, as will @mentions added explicitly by the user in the body of the Tweet). Additionally, new Tweets that begin with a username will no longer have to use the “.@” convention in order to have those Tweets reach all of their followers.

  • Media attachments: A URL at the end of Tweets generated from attaching photos, a video, GIF, poll, Quote Tweet, or DM deep link will also not count towards the character limit (URLs typed or pasted inside the Tweet will be counted towards the character limit as they do today).

This poor explanation has generated some misleading comments and poor articles that attempt to report on Twitter’s changes, and inciting worries that these changes will dramatically increase spam and harassment on the service. These changes are neither as straightforward as they should be, nor as confusing as Twitter makes them out to be.

In short, anything Twitter adds to a tweet — including URLs for images, polls, and quoted tweets — is not counted against the character limit; most things you add to a tweet do count.

For example, in this tweet:

.@ashleyfeinberg wrote 3,500 words on whether Trump has a weave. http://gawker.com/is-donald-trump-s-hair-a-60-000-weave-a-gawker-invest-1777581357

both the @ mention and external URL — condensed into a t.co address, of course — would be counted against the character limit because they were both added manually by the user. This tweet was surfaced in my stream by Christina Warren, who retweeted it. If I were to reply to it, I am presented with this starting point:

@noahshachtman @ashleyfeinberg @film_girl

These three @ mentions would not count against the character limit because it’s a reply to a tweet containing all three user handles. I would still have 140 characters to write my reply, not the 98 of today. If I were to then write something like this:

@noahshachtman @ashleyfeinberg @film_girl Looks like Gawker is about to hit a Fuckface von Nervestick, right @TheDailyShow? https://twitter.com/TheDailyShow/status/330373292651315201

My comment and my additional mention of the Daily Show handle would count against the character limit, but the quoted tweet URL would not. If that URL were instead pointed to, say, the Daily Show video clip, it would count against the limit.

Twitter is limiting the total number of accounts in a reply to fifty, but — as we’ve seen — this doesn’t mean users can mention fifty accounts per tweet. Whether this will impact spam or abuse on Twitter remains to be seen, but it looks these changes have been more thoughtfully designed than many headlines are making it out to be. That said, Twitter absolutely needs to take greater steps to curb harassment.

And you still can’t edit tweets.

Update: Where it gets confusing and weird is that a straight-up mention like this:

@TD_Canada Give me Apple Pay convenience or give me death.

looks identical to a tweet that’s a reply to, say, this tweet:

@TD_Canada Give me Apple Pay convenience or give me death.

Yet, in the latter, the user handle is not counted against the character limit; in the former, it is.