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This Blue Bird's Wings Just Got Clipped

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As most Twitter user’s know, Twitter recently implemented a change to the way @replies are handled in the user’s timeline. This change dramatically impacts the way I (and many of my followers) use Twitter, and does potentially irreperable damage to the one thing that truly set Twitter apart from other newsfeed/status update types of services.

Previously, each user had the ability to set a preference in their settings that specified the way other people’s replies appeared. They had one of three options:

  • show all @replies sent by people they follow
  • show only the @replies by people they follow that are addressed to people the user also follows
  • show only @replies addressed to the user themselves.

My preferences were set to allow all @replies to show in my timeline. I follow over 2,000 people, but I keep my stream organized by group using desktop clients like Nambu and Tweetdeck, so I can prioritize my time and make sure that the tweets from people I deem more closely connected to me or more important to me are always easy to access.

One of the most important ways I find new people to follow is by watching the half-conversations of the people I’m currently following. That is, if someone I’m following is talking to someone I’m not following, I only see the half of the conversation coming from the person I am following.  If someone I feel is worthy of a follow is consistently engaging with someone I’m not following, there’s a good chance I’ll end up following the other person if I’m interested or intrigued by the half-conversation I get to see.

If I had to guess, I’d say more than 85% of the people I follow (who didn’t follow me first) were found through this method. To me, this ability to connect to people with similar interests on such a truly organic level is what defines Twitter. It’s like going to a party where you only know a handful of people, but each of your friends know a handful of people. If you’re actually chatting it up at the party, chances are you’ll leave with a few new friends – people you met through the folks you came with, or because you happened to overhear a conversation and joined in.

This process of getting to know people through friends, without formal introduction or recommendation but simply through normal conversations, feels more natural – more human –  to me than any other way to meet people, especially online.

After speaking to many of my followers, it turns out that they are in a similar situation, and one of the very reasons they enjoy following me is to watch the half-conversation (many of which are funny, as I tend to write in a way that lends itself to being taken entirely out of context for humor’s sake), check out the person to whom I am tweeting, and possibly follow them.

A smaller percentage of them have their settings to the middle option, where they only see @replies I post if the @reply is directed at someone they too are following. The way these latter people use Twitter has not changed a bit, and I imagine the huge ruckus on Twitter about this change is confusing (and overblown) to them, since Twitter is behaving exactly the same as it’s always behaved for them. The way I use Twitter, however, has been crippled to the point where I question whether or not it’s worth using anymore.

The change Twitter made completely eliminated my choice on which replies to see from the people I follow. The only option we have now is to see the @replies by people we follow only if the person the @reply is directed to is also on our follow list. Meaning we can no longer see conversations (or more accurately, half-conversations) in our timeline to or from people we don’t already know.

While I do follow close friends on Twitter, many of my friends aren’t on Twitter – and more importantly, that is what I use Facebook for. Facebook is for connecting to people you already know. Twitter, by it’s very open nature with only the most basic privacy controls (public or private), is structured in a way that makes it virtually impossible not to “meet” new people. They are two very different networks that serve very different purposes. Or at least they were.

The real issue here is where we previously had a choice, we no longer do. We were given NO notice about this change, and were basically given a bullshit reason why.

The first story we got was that it was a feature that the feature was removed because it was “confusing” to users. That is patently absurd. If it was confusing to people, that was a design/UI flaw that could have been fixed with just a little effort. One Mashable user commented on how it could have been simplified. From @idaAa:

Hah. Seriously. Those product design flaws ARE NOT difficult to fix, here’s a suggestion:
http://bit.ly/confusion

Twitter uses a lot of unnecessary technical jargon on their site and on their help pages. Doesn’t really help.

“All @replies” sounded good. “No @replies” sounded scary. Why not call the three different modes more straight-forward things like “Quiet” “Standard” and “Noisy”?

Twitter later fessed up and admitted there was also a “technical issue” involved. The term “technical issue” rubs me the wrong way here too, since it’s an overly ambiguous term being used by a site that is traditionally overly technical. Sure, there may have been some scalability issues, but after the explosive growth over the past several months, you cannot tell me they didn’t anticipate the need to scale.

They also told us that it would be impossible to simply roll back and restore the feature. That is either pandering bullshit, or one of the worst version deployments I’ve seen since… well, since Facebook updated their pages layout and broke the API for 5 days. Actually, it’s worse, because at least Facebook got their shit fixed.

Mashable, who has been following this situation fairly closely, wrote this in a post earlier today:

In a commendable move for the company, Twitter has done what it needed to do today: posted an apology for its poor communication around the “#fixreplies” issue. Earlier this week, an optional Twitter feature was removed for being “confusing”. But after a user backlash, Twitter seemingly changed the story to say there was a technical limitation making the feature unsustainable.

In an admirably frank and honest blog post, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone explains that his first post should have mentioned the technical issue in addition to the product design problem, and says the issue was that he wrote the post too hastily.

While I appreciate Stone’s apology and acknowledgment that they screwed up, the reality is that there is no timeline or roadmap on when this feature will be restored, or even what it will look like, since he made it clear that it will not be back in a way that resembles it’s previous incarnation. And without this feature, Twitter is a shadow of its former self.

They claim that this change impacts only 3% of their users, which I think is bullshit. While I don’t think that they’re actually making the numbers up, I cannot help but think that they are not taking into consideration the fact that loads of accounts are created and then never used, so unless they are factoring in only active accounts, that number is meaningless.

I would also be willing to bet that the 3% referenced are some of the most active contributors to Twitter. Which means that although it may only be 3% of their total users, they are arguably the most dedicated, active and valuable of the Twitter users. (That is not at all to say that the people who have their @replies limited to people they follow are not valuable. I’m speaking more to total overall impact in numbers and content created.)

Even if Twitter brought back this feature tomorrow, which Stone has made clear isn’t going to happen, Twitter has lost the trust of many of their previously rabidly evangelical fans. When you have a product that people love – and love to love, are proud of loving, and feel like they’re part of an exclusive club for loving – you can’t buy that level of devotion. And when you screw it up, its very hard to get that back. It’s like a spouse who is caught cheating and the couple decides to work through it  – even if the love is strong, the doubt remains. Fuck me once, shame on you, fuck me twice, shame on me.

Twitter users that were here before CNN, Oprah and The View started tweeting have been through a lot. We’ve stuck it out through extensive server outages, days and weeks of fail whale after fail whale, missing tweets, inexplicably lost tweet history and followers. We haven’t asked for new features, we haven’t asked for anything other than for it to work. They have such a good thing – a great brand, complete with fun idioms and and lexicon all it’s own: tweets, tweeple, twitterverse, and so on. The users love the brand. Twitter needs to fix this.

What Twitter really, really has to understand is that if they don’t fix this, someone else will. They’ve spent tons of time and money proving that this is a viable platform. If they lose momentum now, there are a hundred startups with venture capital behind them chomping at the bit to take their place and monetize it. This will not be to the user’s advantage, since the user base will be fragmented to the various networks that step up to take Twitter’s place. We’ll no longer all be in the same place, and connections will not be made that otherwise might have been.

As a self-absorbed side-note, the timing of this mess couldn’t be worse. I was recently listed in a Wired Magazine blog post as one of the 100 geeks to follow on Twitter – an honor of which I am utterly and truly unworthy.

Twitter, please don’t make me give up on you. This ain’t no Brokeback Mountain – I do know how to quit you, I just really hope I don’t have to.

What are your thoughts? Leave’em in the comments.

About the author

snipe

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me me at @snipe.lol, or read more...

By snipe
Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

About Me

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me me at @snipe.lol, or read more...

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