Twitter #fixreplies fiasco is telling

May 14, 2009
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I’ve seen many people try to explain (or argue with someone) about why Twitter matters, what they use it for, why it’s cool. These conversations are often interesting in how they demonstrate that even people that love Twitter often can’t explain it to anybody. Sometimes I think these people aren’t even sure themselves what they get out of Twitter, or why they find it compelling.

And I think the #fixreplies fiasco shows that even the Twitter brain trust may not understand the value of their own service very well. We certainly know they don’t seem to have any idea how to make money with it.

For those that haven’t caught wind of this yet, recently Twitter stopped displaying public tweets that are deemed to be “replies” between your friends and someone who you do not follow. In the past, such tweets would be seen as sort of one side of a conversation. If you follow @Fred for instance, you might have seen something like the following in your Twitter stream:

Fred: @Mary I liked your idea about http:…

In this case, let’s say you don’t know who @Mary is. Since you like Fred, you might want to know who this Mary character is and what she’s about. A tweet like the above was a perfect opportunity to be exposed to new people that your friends engaged with. In other words, it was a great way to discover new potential friends. it was also a great way to see what your friends are talking about – what topics were so interesting to them that they were compelled to respond.  So they helped us stay more in touch with our friends, both in terms of who else they talk to and what they like talking about.

In addition to the tweet itself, it might also have said something like “in reply to Mary” which is a link to the original tweet by Mary that Bob is responding to.

By removing these tweets from my stream, Twitter has instantly made itself less valuable as a social tool. On Facebook, I can see when a friend comments on one of their friends’ items, even if that second person is not my friend. Friends of Friends is a major component of any social network and part of what separates a “social” site from just another web site.

Twitter argued that they had to do this for technical reasons. That makes no sense to me. What’s really special about this tweet by my friend Fred, as far as Twitter is concerned? Why are they treating it specially? In terms of the relationship to my stream, as a follower of Fred, how is it different than other tweets by Fred? Of course it’s not. So much so, that people have talked about simply inventing a new format for replies and not using @Mary anymore so that the message will appear in the stream. UPDATE: Twitter claims the “technical problem” is having to check every account’s preference every time a reply was posted was causing a huge strain on their database – so they removed the option and gave everyone the “most common” choice.

It also represents another step toward violating the end-to-end prinicipal , something that has gone toward greatly increasing the value of the Twitter network and separating Twitter from others. As I have said, dropping the end-to-end advantage is a big deal:

This end-to-end model permits myriad uses of the underlying network and fosters incredible innovation.

At first look, Twitter becoming more “intelligent” about the contents of tweets may appear to be a good thing. But it is a slipery slope. Once they start adding meaning to the 140 characters, the network becomes more restrictive. The more Twitter remains a “stupid network” the better, IMHO.

I think that fact that even Twitter themselves don’t understand what makes their service valuable tells us something. I hope they figure it out and don’t destoy the special thing they have created.

Update: an interesting counter-perspective: my thoughts on #fixreplies and the ‘dot fix by @HelloKit.

Also, see the whatumissed hack for a way to see these missed replies again: http://mrblog.org/whatumissed.html

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2 Responses to Twitter #fixreplies fiasco is telling

  1. May 15, 2009 at 4:56 am

    Previously we have disagreed whether Twitter is stupid or not. Since they have inserted themselves in the middle it is tempting for them to be intelligent. We should plan on working around that like we have done in PSTN for modems.

  2. May 15, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Indeed, to the extent Twitter allows us to do so and doesn’t become so “intelligent” as to complete destroy the value of Twitter (this #fixreplies stupidity is close to doing so).

    I’m going to put together a “what you missed” hack that will use the APIs to show people what tweets Twitter excluded from their feed. I wanted to publish that today, but I’ve just got too much work people are actually paying me to do to first.

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