Until yesterday evening, one of the best ways of discovering new people on Twitter was to observe whom your friends talked to. For those of you who aren't familiar with Twitter, these messages typically look something like this:
acarvin: @eyderp that's an interesting point, thanks for suggesting it.
In this hypothetical example, I'm sending a tweet to my fellow All Tech blogger Eyder Peralta. Anyone who subscribed to my tweets would see this message, and some of them might click through to Eyder's tweets to see the rest of the conversation. It's your choice, of course, but when you see a reply that references someone else and it's an interesting discussion, you might end up making a new contact out of it. I'd guess I've discovered more than half the people I'm following on Twitter this way.
Unfortunately, that's no longer possible. With Twitter's update last night, you won't see any more tweets from your friends that are replies to people you don't know. So if you were following me on Twitter but not Eyder, to continue with the above example, that tweet would not even exist as far as you're concerned. You'd never see it, and you'd never get the opportunity to meet Eyder in the process.
Here's how Twitter's Biz Stone explained the change on their blog:
We've updated the Notices section of Settings to better reflect how folks are using Twitter regarding replies. Based on usage patterns and feedback, we've learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow—it's a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don't follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today's update removes this undesirable and confusing option.
The problem is that large numbers of Twitter users consider this "undesirable and confusing option" as one of the most powerful aspects of Twitter. It's all about serendipity. No two people have an exact match of friends in their individual social circles, of course. But the fact that you and someone else have something in common make it likely that there are other people they might know that you might want to know as well. And in some cases, you might realize you have a friend in common that you didn't even know was on Twitter. It's all about discovery. Or at least it was until last night.
"This new Twitter policy breaks one of the fundamental rules of social activity streams: that I can discover new people by seeing who is conversing with the people I already know," Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote on ReadWriteWeb. It's crazy. Imagine the new users who are only following celebrities. Who will they be exposed to in this quieter new stream?"
Marshall's last point is particularly important. When I hear from people who've tried Twitter and quit, they often cite the fact that they can't find anyone interesting to talk to. Perhaps they're just following the Ashton Kutchers of the world, who use Twitter to send bursts of information to huge numbers of people. Perhaps they don't realize that Twitter is fundamentally a conversation medium rather than a publishing medium. Either way, they end up quitting because they don't find anyone who might want to listen and talk back with them. Now, finding those people just got a lot harder.
And the Twitterverse ain't happy. As I write this, the two most popular topics on Twitter are #fixreplies and #TwitterFail. Neither of those is intended as complimentary to Twitter, to put it mildly.
When people ask me about Twitter, I often describe it as a cocktail party. You show up, see someone across the room that you know and begin having a conversation with them. Some people might hear you and join in. Other conversations are taking place in the background, and you can choose to chime in at any time or stay focused on your own conversation. Either way, it was your choice.
Now that choice is gone. Perhaps Twitter user @ScottHepburn said it best: "OMG! I'm in a bar and can only hear conversations between people I know! It's so quiet! This place is lame...I'm leaving."
I can almost hear the crickets chirping.
UPDATE, 5/13, 1:55pm: The folks at Twitter have posted another blog entry called Whoa, Feedback!:
We're getting a ton of extremely useful feedback about yesterday's update to Settings. The engineering team reminded me that 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. Nevertheless, it's amazing to wake up and see all the tweets about this change.
We're hearing your feedback and reading through it all. One of the strongest signals is that folks were using this setting to discover and follow new and interesting accounts—this is something we absolutely want to support. Our product, design, user experience, and technical teams have started brainstorming a way to surface a new, scalable way to address this need.
Please stay tuned and thank you again for all the feedback.
Looks like they're taking the complaints seriously. - @acarvin
UPDATE #2, 5/13, 5pm ET:
The latest from Twitter:
This morning we received lots of great info about the replies setting we changed yesterday. Folks loved this feature because it allowed them to discover new people and participate serendipitously in various conversations. The problem with the setting was that it didn't scale and even if we rebuilt it, the feature was blunt. It was confusing and caused a sense of inconsistency. We felt we could do much better.
So here's what we're planning to do. First, we're making a change such that any updates beginning with @username (that are not explicitly created by clicking on the reply icon) will be seen by everyone following that account. This will bring back some serendipity and discovery and we can do this very soon.
Second, we've started designing a new feature which will give folks far more control over what they see from the accounts they follow. This will be a per-user setting and it will take a bit longer to put together but not too long and we're already working on it. Thanks for all the great feedback and thanks for helping us discover what's important!
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