We’re all used to the 140-character limit by now, but do you know how it started? Here’s a little history lesson for anyone wondering why they’ve got to condense their thoughts into 140-characters or less – and how to get around the limit without turning off your followers.

The origins of the 140-character limit

Once upon a time, long long ago… a group of young programmers whipped up a program that could send SMS to and from a small group of recipients.

This blossomed into Twitter, a web- and mobile- based messaging system that lets users send short messages – known as tweets – to one another.

So why the 140-character limit?

Twitter was (and still is) a service that relied heavily on mobile-messaging. Sure, you can send and receive tweets on your computer, but a huge draw of Twitter in the early days was its ability to be accessed from mobile phones.

And since the worldwide standard length of SMS (or text messages on phones) is 160-characters, the founders of Twitter thought it wise to stay within that bounds so as not to inundate people’s phones with 3 or 4 staggered, delayed, or even partially missing 4-part messages.

140-characters was chosen as a good length, leaving 20 characters for the username of the sender. This way, anyone receiving a tweet via SMS would get the whole tweet in a single text message, with nothing spilling over into a second or third message that pops up minutes later.

What if I want go over 140-characters?

Twitter etiquette can be difficult to ascertain, especially for the uninitiated. What are these @replies? How do I shorten links? But one of the things that people struggle with most when starting out with Twitter is often this 140-character limit.

In the majority of cases, you’ll want to stick to 140-characters and no more. Condense your ideas, shorten your words, and really get at the essential point you’re trying to make. It is a fun exercise, really. You’re forced to think about what you’re going to say and get at the heart of the matter, rather than writing two or three paragraphs before you get to the point.

However, it is possible to go over the 140-character limit. If you have an idea that simply must be expressed in more than 140-characters, there are a few options:

  1. Write two tweets. This is the simplest way to write more than 140-characters on Twitter. However, keep in mind that people sometimes follow hundreds or thousands of people other than yourself – and even if your tweets are only 35 seconds apart, they might appear 5 to 10 tweets apart in someone’s timeline. To make sure your tweets stay together, either write the whole post out and copy+past the first half and then the second immediately after, or add a (cont’d) at the end of your first tweet so followers know that more is on the way.
  2. Write a blog post and link to it. If you have a strong opinion about a current event, or you just want to gush for paragraphs about the latest kitty video you found, consider mixing Twitter with other multimedia on the web, such as your own blog. This way, you can send out a tweet that gets to the core of what you want to say (“Cutest cat EVER jumps on a table, adorable!”), and by adding a link to a full blog post, you can wax philosophical about the meaning of “cat” to your heart’s content.