By itself, Twitter’s announcement that it would expand its character limit for private messages from 140 characters — the limit applied to tweets — to 10,000 can be interpreted as a simple upgrade to a relatively minor feature. Even Twitter employees themselves took a muted tone when discussing the move; Sachin Agarwal, product manager for DMs, was paraphrased as saying the company’s private messaging “functioned best as a kind of backchannel for Twitter: a place to take discussion of tweets, or the people tweeting them, to a private place.” But of course no product rollout occurs in a vacuum, so we must consider this change within the context of other modifications made to the platform, and it turns out Twitter has been pretty busy lately working on its direct messaging capabilities. After ignoring DMs for years, Twitter has, over the last few months, opened the platform for group messaging, allowed people to upload photos, and reversed its (bizarre) ban on sending URLs. You’d be forgiven if you looked at the totality of these features and reached a rather obvious conclusion: Twitter is looking more and more like a private messaging app. And it’s no coincidence that this expansion in Twitter’s focus is occurring during a global explosion in messaging app adoption. While social platforms still continue to expand, they are facing increasing competition from OTT messaging services, and in some countries social networks have been completely surpassed in use by private messengers. In the U.S., one-to-one messaging platforms like Snapchat are a relatively new phenomena, seeing the highest adoption among teens, but in other countries, particularly in Europe, Asia, and South America, use of such tools is almost universal. In Brazil, for instance, 90 percent of the population uses these apps regularly.
Facebook’s shift to messaging
Some analysts believe private messaging could soon overtake social in worldwide adoption, and major social media companies are taking this threat seriously. Facebook, arguably the world’s most successful social network, first tried to acquire Snapchat for over $3 billion, and, failing that, began forcing its mobile users onto Facebook Messenger, which now boasts 700 million users. Last year, it launched Slingshot, an ephemeral messaging app meant to compete with Snapchat, and then a few months later made a stunning $22 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, which itself has over half a billion users. Why do users — and investors — find this brand of app so valuable? Well, for one, because the messages are sent OTT, which stands for “over the top,” the apps can be used to replace mobile texting, which is traditionally much more expensive. The apps also replace, or incorporate in, desktop instant messaging platforms. Some pundits believe that younger generations, after seeing the negative consequences that result from blasting intimate details out to public audiences, are migrating back to private spaces that favor one-to-one — and safer — interactions. While evidence for this remains mostly anecdotal, it does seem clear that users of messaging apps, especially in non-U.S. countries, are starting to view these tools as more than just a vehicle for messaging. The apps are becoming the new mobile browser.
The mobile lifestyle goes beyond social
In a well-researched article, Andreessen Horowitz partner Connie Chan laid out an explanation for why WeChat has so dominated the Chinese app market. More than just a messaging app, it addresses the “daily, even hourly needs of its users. Instead of focusing on building the largest social network in the world, WeChat has focused on building a mobile lifestyle — its goal is to address every aspect of its users’ lives, including non-social ones.” Companies and brands, instead of launching their own standalone apps, are launching them within WeChat’s ecosystem, making it a one-stop destination for everything from mobile payments to restaurant reservations. Will Twitter start allowing mobile payments anytime soon? Well, it’s already begun to experiment with such tools in other countries. But regardless of how long it takes to expand these capabilities to all users, it’s already uniquely positioned as the prime platform for real-time conversation, and allowing its users to move these conversations into private messaging will only boost its utility. And its executives know that the rush to provide more messaging utility isn’t just about a battle to dominate social, it’s a marathon race to become the next Verizon or AT&T. The telecom giants have enjoyed their market dominance; the rise of OTT will almost certainly end it. Matt Cooper is the CEO of Visually. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cooper.