Yesterday afternoon, Twitter made what they called a “small settings update“ to their eponymous service. Who cares? That title fooled me, too, but let me tell you, everyone cared. Within hours, this change spread across the worlds of bloggers and micro-bloggers alike. And less than 24 hours after announcing the change, Twitter’s founder, Biz Stone, was forced to admit that making this change was a problem.
What’s the problem?
In case you didn’t happen to notice, here’s the change in a nutshell:
When a user “tweets” in reply to another, they normally put that user’s name (with an “@” sign) at the front. For example, consider the message, “@3parfarley you just went nuts over this twitter update!” This lets the world know I’m addressing my “tweet” to 3parfarley, but it’s not a private communication (what Twitter calls a “direct message”). Everyone else who follows me would be able to see that message, as would anyone visiting my Twitter profile or using search. This was described in detail by @ev last year.
Now, Twitter has always long had an optional setting which would hide this kind of “@reply” when they were sent to someone I don’t follow. So if brento doesn’t follow 3parfarley, he wouldn’t have to see that particular tweet from me if that’s how he wanted to set his account. This would cut down on the conversational nature of Twitter, returning it more to its initial vision as a broadcast-type micro-blog. But this option was off by default was confusing, so many users didn’t even know they could hide conversations between their friends and strangers. @Ev claims that 98% of users didn’t even use this.
The change was a simple one: Twitter now hides @replies to people you don’t follow. Effectively, Twitter switched this simple setting on for all users. The problem is, they made this mandatory: It’s on for everyone, and there is no longer even an option to turn it off!
Although some initial reports suggested that Twitter was hiding all “mentions” of other users, effectively killing the #followfriday meme, this turned out not to be the case. But the core issue remained: This minor change stifles conversation and discovery of new users to follow.
Why did they do it?
My first question on waking up to this new Twitter environment was “why?”
They couldn’t possibly have done it to respond to user confusion, as Stone initially indicated. Twitter is darn confusing as it is, and this change is minor in comparison to the weird and wonderful way of speaking that has evolved there.
The fact that they eliminated the option is one clue. Twitter could easily have simply turned this option on for all new accounts (or even for all accounts) but allowed us to switch it back off if we wanted to. No, they must have believed they had to get rid of this option for some reason.
The real reason is lurking in Stone’s mea culpa: “there were serious technical reasons why that setting had to go or be entirely rebuilt” and “a new, scalable way to address this need.” In other words, exposing @replies was taking up too much computing power, so Twitter wanted to turn it off to help meet user demand.
I don’t know anything about Twitter’s underlying architecture. But this seems both weird and plausible to me. Since @replies show up even to folks who aren’t following you, there must be something special about them in the Twitter software. And whatever this is, it must take much more CPU power than merely exposing a stream of updates.
The problem is that Twitter’s Stone was entirely disingenuous about this change. He blamed the newbie users, suggested that @replies were bad, and called this kind of tweet “fragmented.” He did everything but admit that there was a technical reason to shut them down.
Out of control
This is called not being honest with your customers and it is the real reason people should be mad. Twitter is desperately trying to keep up with the exploding use of their system, but this wasn’t a good move.
The nature of this change exposes something else about Twitter that I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a long time. We’re all using Twitter wrong! It was never meant to be a global “stream of consciousness” conversation. It was supposed to be a tiny blog! We were supposed to post fully-formed thoughts and links and read the same from others, not hold conversations with @replies.
But history has shown that companies can’t control how their customers use their products! Ever use duct tape on a duct? Or masking tape for masking? Or bailing wire for bailing? You get the picture.
Once people get familiar with a tool, they tend to figure out a way to use it that makes sense to them. And these are often at odds with the originator’s intent. The most successful companies accept what their customers want and adapt to this reality. They realize that their health tonic can be sold in bulk as a popular soft drink or that their farm vehicles are popular for dropping kids off at school.
Twitter didn’t intend for us to use @replies all that much, so they didn’t build it to scale. But most of what we post are @replies today, stressing the system. The answer is not shutting them off. The answer is making them work!
Update: Twitter has sort of reversed course, in the most confusing way possible!