Twitter’s managed to avoid the high profile rows with its users that have beset Facebook from time to time, but it had to happen eventually. And last night might be their first falling-out with their previously besotted membership.
Twitter have previously avoided annoying their members by not doing anything much of anything at all. The service has been kept simple with only cosmetic changes; the biggest alteration, the cessation of SMS messages outside the US and Canada, was unfortunate but clearly understood as a matter of economics forced upon Twitter rather than a choice.
But a new change has come out of the blue that fundamentally changes how many people – myself included – use Twitter.
The change is that now I will no longer see messages from people I follow if they’re sent to someone that I don’t. Apparently it’s because many people find it irritating to only get “half a conversation”, like listening to someone talk on the phone but not hearing the other end of the conversation. Of course, on Twitter I could opt to now follow the person they were talking to as well so that I got both sides; and in fact that’s how many people have built up their Twitter social network, by getting introduced to friends of friends.
Unfortunately this new change now means that the people I’ve opted to follow are now sending out messages that I’m not seeing – I’m not even hearing their side of the phone conversation, so I don’t even know anything’s been said. I don’t even get the opportunity to join in the conversation. I not only lose a fair proportion of their messages that I expressely wanted to follow, I also lose a whole way of getting to know new people: it cripples a lot of networking functionality of Twitter, basically.
I can understand people who don’t want to use Twitter in this raw social networking way: either those who get too many messages and find the level of noise is affecting Twitter’s value to them; or who just want to have their own circle of friends and not get cluttered up with loads of other conversations that they’re not interested in. That’s fine: if Twitter had added a preferences option that allowed you to select “Only show @replies to people I follow” then I’d be quite happy; I wouldn’t have opted to select it, but anyone who wanted to would be properly served.
But to change this without that choice and without warning or discussion is something that is almost designed to provoke the membership. And like any other social media businesses over the years, Twitter is starting to discover that the members own the service not Twitter and that you provoke them at your peril. Remember: the size of Twitter’s membership can do down as well as up.
You can look at Facebook’s spats with its members (such as the debacle over new terms and conditions) and say, “oh, people will get over it”. But Facebook have learned from that incident that they need to cooperate with its members to keep them on board and find a middle ground. And that contre-temps was over something abstract that didn’t even affect day-to-day usage, unlike today’s Twitter change.
Is it hyperbole to call this change “fundamental”? Well, Twitter’s sole input box asks “What are you doing” and allows you to post your current status. If that status is no longer shared with people just because I directed it @ someone, then it no longer fulfills its original, single purpose as a service. Surely that justified “fundamental”?
So today, Twitter enters a new phase of its growth, and we get to see what kind of company it’s going to be: a true social media company that makes notice of its users, or a Microsoft/Apple that knows what’s best for its members and makes sure they get it; whether they like/want it or not.
I really hope it rises to the task, and is quick to #fixreplies.
Clarifying a misapprehension
A lot of tweets about the issue (and even the TechCrunch article covering the row) seem to think that this is the same issue as the old preference option that allowed you to choose to see on your home page all @replies from people sent to you, whether you followed them or not. It isn’t, although that’s been changed as well so that now you have to use the “mentions” tab to see them. At least there’s a fairly simple workaround for that.
Whereas this latest change is more crippling: the only way I can “workaround” this one is to go to every single one of the people I follow to see if they’ve posted something that hasn’t shown up on my home page because they started it with an ‘@’ to someone I wasn’t following.
That’s not a workaround, that’s a disaster.
UPDATE: Good post by long time Twitter user Darren Waters over at the BBC blogs entitled “Twitter tests users with changes” and also ReadWriteWeb’s “Twitter Puts a Muzzle on Your Friends” and “Is This Why Twitter Changed Its Replies Policy?” posts.
UPDATE 2: And seems that I was behind the times on the last bit of the post, and it’s my misapprehension that needs correcting. Apparently Twitter offered three settings: show all @replies, no @replies or @replies to people I’m following and it is indeed, as TechCrunch and others say, this preference setting that’s been removed. That differs from the way I remember that setting functioning, so either it changed since I originally looked/set it or else I simply misremembered the options it gave. But it does seem a lot of people are not entirely getting what this latest change means in practice, that they will be missing posts sent by people they are following which is my main issue with it. Thanks to the blog post by Jon Bounds for extra info.
UPDATE 3: And now, oddly, Twitter founder Biz Stone has changed the reason why the feature was removed: “there were serious technical reasons why that setting had to go or be entirely rebuilt—it wouldn’t have lasted long even if we thought it was the best thing ever.” Okay … Weird not to say that in the first place. Like the withdrawal of SMS, if a feature can’t be sustained without collapsing the whole then even die hard fans concede there is a good case to withdraw it. Only the unfortunate thing is, by changing stories, Twitter now look a bit untrustworthy: is it really technically unsustainable, or are they simply rolling out the technical reason the feature had to go because of the backlash and they needed something more than the original somewhat condescending announcement? Actually, I’m always more inclined to go for the cock-up theory of history than conspiracy.
AND FINALLY: Last update, I promise. I’m getting bored with the whole subject now. but I wanted to pass on a brilliant post/idea from Space Miner (Laura Brunow Miner) who outlines how this change is as much opportunity as problem, simply by creating your own “Twitter group accounts“. Really smart thinking.
NO, REALLY, THIS TIME IT’S FINAL: Sorry. Fast moving story, and I didn’t see this one coming so quickly: Twitter have relented. Sort of. They’ve changed their changes so that you will now continue to see replies even if they are to people you aren’t following. Unless someone uses the actual ‘reply to’ button. Errr – got that? I can see their logic in the new position and it might address some of the technical problems they mentioned, but it’s not exactly crystal clear. Now I feel sorry for all the people who had the previous “no replies” default setting who are suddenly going to get all the extra noise in their home page stream. Sigh. Coverage and explanations in TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb.
Personally I don’t think this really satisfies anyone fully. It probably appeases the #fixreplies crowd well enough, and maybe the noreplies crowd won’t mind/notice all that much. It’s not the “choose your own preferences” solution but Twitter is promising more personalisation controls down the line, it’ll just take a while so this is an interim fix.
But what is good is that Twitter listened, and did its best to respond. They’ve done some good social media practice today.
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