Why Does Twitter Hate That People Want to Have Conversations on Its Site?

by Mack Collier

If you talk to any long-time Twitter user, one of the first complaints you will hear is ‘I miss when you could actually have a conversation on Twitter’.  Those of you that joined Twitter within say the last 4-5 years wouldn’t know, but Twitter used to be a hotbed for organic conversations.  In fact, that used to be the primary appeal of the site, going to Twitter and meeting new people and having discussions with them.

But several years ago, Twitter made a very small technical change that signaled its true intent.  For the first few years of its existence, when someone you followed replied to someone you didn’t follow, you could see that tweet.  Here’s an example from Veronica, who I am following:

@MazzyStarFan Hey don’t forget that the tweetup is tonight at the Half Pint, on 3rd Ave and 4th St!

Now even though I am not following @MazzyStarFan, in the ‘old days’ of Twitter, I would have seen this tweet.  And in this case, the tweet would have told me there was a tweetup tonight that I didn’t know about, so I might want to attend.

But the change Twitter made was that in order to see this example tweet, I have to be following both Veronica and @MazzyStar (or Veronica has to put a dot in front of her reply to @MazzyStarFan).  Since I’ve never met @MazzyStarFan and have no idea who she is, I can’t follow her, and I miss this tweet and miss the tweetup as well.

This also makes it much harder to organically meet and follow new people on Twitter.  Because if I am having a conversation with Tom, and he starts talking about the same topic with Jennifer, I can only see and comment on Tom’s tweets to Jennifer if I am following Jennifer as well.  Basically if Twitter was a mixer or networking event, you would only be able to interact with the people you already knew.

Why does Twitter do this?  Because Twitter thinks it can do a better job of deciding how you want to use its site, than you can:

 We’re trying to avoid the situation of you hearing someone answer a question when you didn’t hear the question (for instance). Also, you don’t have to hear answers to the question from people you don’t want to hear from. (If you’re not following them, you won’t see their answer.)

That’s great, but why not give me a setting that lets me decide if I want to see replies from people I don’t follow?  Why assume that you know the type of user experience that I want?

And now there are rumors that Twitter wants to eliminate at replies and hashtags.  What the hell is going on here?  Add in that so many blogs are now ditching comments and it seems that there’s an all-out war on conversations on social media sites.  Share content, but don’t discuss the content.

I hate to be an old social media fogey, but give me the good old days (2007-2008) when I could actually have conversations on social media sites with friends versus today when I go, try to wade through a stream of self-promotional tweets, then throw my hands up and leave.  That’s not progress, it’s clutter.

Twitter, stop messing up my Twitter.

Jen August 14, 2014 at 3:27 pm

I had no idea that Twitter had done this. That really is a mistake on their part. Why would they ever think that this would be an improvement of service?

Will be interested to see what twitter does in the future and if they end up shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak.

Mack Collier August 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Yes it’s much harder to meet new people and grow your network organically now on Twitter. It’s like social media is becoming just….media.

And I fixed the typo :)

Jen August 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Thanks for fixing that!

Yup it really does suck…if not for the ability to see other’s conversations with people you aren’t following on Twitter, I might never have met you and found your blog or read your book!

Lyndal Cairns August 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Dear me! What would Twitter be without hashtags and @replies?! Let’s hope it’s just a rumor.

I miss the public @replies – especially when someone tweets at me something I wish their network had seen – but I understand why it was done. You and I, Mack, we like “drinking from the fire hose” but I would wager we’re not silly enough to accidentally click on many sponsored posts either. Perhaps those who are, are wont to complain that Twitter is too confusing for them.

Mack Collier August 14, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Hi Lyndal, I agree it might be confusing to some new users, but the replies are something that Twitter’s hardcore users, the ones that built the site’s initial popularity, loved. There are countless people that I used to love talking to on Twitter several years ago that have all left because it’s so much harder to have conversations now. It’s odd for a social media tool to look for ways to remove the ‘social’ elements from the user experience.

Robyn Wright August 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I have two different thoughts on this…

1. The Twitter addict that I am does not want them to change and get rid of @ and #. I still love Twitter the way it is and use it daily, throughout the day. I am annoyed that there are not enough conversations happening these days though like it used to be.

2. While the one part does not want it to change, changes are they HAVE to change and evolve to stay relevant. Because there are fewer conversations happening on Twitter these days and more broadcasting it is morphing into something different. In order for Twitter to stay a relevant social network it will have to continue to find new and BETTER ways for users to use it and want to be there. This isn’t to say I think that getting rid of @ and # is that better way, but I think them thinking forward is what they must do to stay alive or they will become another MySpace.

Mack Collier August 14, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Hi Robyn! I agree Twitter needs to make changes to stay relevant, but the question is, who is Twitter trying to remain relevant to? Is it best to focus on its users, or its stakeholders? It seems that for the last few years Twitter has been focused on what its investors want versus its users. It’s understandable to a degree because they were taking on a lot of VC money and those investors wanted to see a return. But those returns shouldn’t consistently come at the expense of user experience.

It’s a fine line to walk.

Penina August 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Up until now, Twitter has differentiated itself by the flow of real time conversation. The broadcast-type messages were the noise that I as a user did what I could to filter out. I did that by choosing not to follow (and sometimes unfollowing) most of the 100% broadcasters, and checking for the presence of conversation on the profile page of someone I considered following.

The instantaneous flow was maddening at first, and took some getting used to (words of wisdom from Mack in those early days were a big help for me :-), but it bears repeating that this is Twitter’s big differentiator. Without conversation, they are just “radio”.

I know people often threaten to leave a site or platform when things don’t go their way… but if Twitter really does eliminate conversation features, I see no reason to remain.

Mack Collier August 14, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Penina it’s interesting because so many people say they want to leave Facebook as well (for different reasons mostly) but there’s no real competition for either Facebook or Twitter (maybe Google Plus somewhat for FB) and that’s what we need.

I think as the user experience continues to degrade on both platforms then it opens the door a bit wider for a competitor to challenge them and grab up a lot of the users on both sites that were once excited but who are now mostly apathetic.

Penina August 14, 2014 at 5:12 pm

I’m not sure that FB is really making mistakes. They are becoming more things for a wider range of people: a big “family update letter” and “keep in touch with old friends” site that is super, super simple to get started with for non-techy users.

Maybe Twitter also has a “more things to more people” vision, and maybe it’s a smart business move… but I agree that their actions definitely prime me and others like me for the next platform.

So that competitor who grabs up the users who were once excited is grabbing up early (and early-ish) adopters whose role from a business perspective is to create critical mass, attract the wider group, and then leave when the no-longer-so-new-competitor begins adapting its UX to that wider group in order to generate revenue.

Mack Collier August 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

I think FB continues to do things to communicate to its users that their privacy is not a prime concern for FB.

Both FB and Twitter are making moves to become more ‘business friendly’ and have for years. This is smart as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the experience for the core user. Occasionally it can be ok, but if it happens consistently then the overall experience for the user starts to erode and that’s when people start questioning the time they spend there.

Stephanie August 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Hi Mack,

Nice post and I agree, yet I have awesome conversations during #edchat despite the changes. We’re actually running a survey for educators that use twitter to find out more-check it out: http://rossieronline.usc.edu/edchat-survey/

Beth Anne August 15, 2014 at 2:23 am

YES! I hate this! I know people that put a period or the mention at the end. But still it’s annoying. I also have friends that will tweet at each other and another friend will be all, “you know twitter has DM’s for private convos” and really what they were saying wasn’t all that private….

Mack Collier August 15, 2014 at 8:17 am

Hi Beth Anne, yes I don’t understand why friendly chatting should be private? Who is offended and wouldn’t that be a way to bring other people into the chat? If that’s not what the two friends want then they can decide to start chatting privately. But I’d rather have that option than Twitter making that decision for me.

Beth Anne August 15, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Yeah…I think sometimes people forget that twitter is a public forum..I’ll see 2 or 3 ppl tweeting about a topic and I’ll chime in with my thoughts and sometimes they get mad! If you didn’t want others to chime in you shouldn’t be talking about it on twitter!

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