Understanding a subtle Twitter feature

February 3, 2012

One part of getting on Twitter has been following people, which led me to discover that when you follow someone Twitter doesn't show you all of their public tweets. To summarize what I think is the rule, Twitter excludes any conversations they're having that purely involve other people you don't also follow. Their tweets in the conversation will appear in their public timeline, but not in your view of their tweets.

(This may only apply to relatively new Twitter accounts, or even only to some of them. I've seen Twitter give two different interfaces to two new accounts.)

On the one hand, when I discovered this I was infuriated. If you really did want to see everything (for example, so you could find other people to follow based on who your initial people had interesting conversations with), this made having a Twitter account worse than just perusing the Twitter pages of interesting people.

On the other hand, once I thought about it more I've come to reluctantly admire Twitter's trick with this feature. What it is, from my perspective, is a clever way to reduce the volume impact of following someone and thus make doing so less risky. Without it, following someone would immediately expose you to both their general remarks and to the full flow of whatever conversations they have. With Twitter's way, you are only initially exposed to people's general remarks; you ramp up your exposure to their conversations by following more people, and ramp it down by the reverse.

My feeling is that exposure to an overwhelming firehose of updates is the general problem of social networking. Social networks usually want you to be active and to follow lots of people. But if those people are themselves active, the more people you follow the more volume descends on you, and it's especially bad when you follow very socially active users, the ones having a lot of conversations. This creates a disincentive to follow people and pushes you to scale back. Twitter has this especially badly because it has no separate 'comment' mechanism (comments are important for reducing volume). Twitter's trick here is thus a clever way to reduce the firehose in a natural way that doesn't require user intervention and tuning; you could see it as a way of recreating something like comments in a system that doesn't naturally have them.

Once I realized this, it's certainly been working the way that Twitter probably intended. When I'm considering whether or not to follow someone I don't really look at the volume of their tweets in general; I mostly look just at the volume of their non-conversation tweets, because those are the only ones that I'm going to see. Often this makes me more willing to follow people (and thereby furthers Twitter's overall goal of getting me more engaged with their service).

Comments on this page:

From at 2012-02-04 00:03:20:

Back when I first signed up to Twitter (2009 I think?) the default was to see every tweet by everyone you followed, but the option was already in there to only see tweets to people you both follow. It became quickly clear to me that I it was untenable for me to leave it in the default state. Some people who were part of the local twitter scene seemed to spend their entire day tweeting everyone.

Eventually Twitter started looking at usage and discovered almost everyone turned the option off, so they made the decision to do the same, which seemed to cause a fuss among only the excessively social types ;)

It also gave them a free win in that the new sign-ups weren't requiring quite so many resources at a time when Twitter was experiencing problems with scaling.

From at 2012-02-04 16:49:12:

It seems like Twitter decides whether or not to publish a comment generally based on the first character—if it's an @ character, Twitter does the filtering, so people do things like put a period before that to force the tweet to be published like a normal tweet. (You may have already realized that, but I only picked it up recently.)

From at 2012-02-04 23:38:23:

It’s decided based on whether it’s formally a reply to another tweet. That can happen even in some variations where people put something else in front of the initial @ in an attempt to circumvent the visibility reduction. On the other hand you can write a tweet with an initial @ to address someone specifically, without it being a formal reply (e.g. if you open Twitter and type @ev straight away).

I complained bitterly about having the option (I don’t care about the default) to see everything taken away and still haven’t gotten over it. It has made the service a lot less interesting to me – ever since. (And being overly social is not something anyone would accuse me of.) I still believe their decision had little to do with how many users used the option and more to do with it being a scalability crutch in a desperate time.

I also don’t understand why they never gave the option to look at all of your followees’ favourites in one place, and to add them to your timeline selectively or globally – a role that the parallel retweeting system now fulfils, except that it’s opt-out as opposed to the lamentably excessively opt-in nature of reading others’ favourites.

Nor do I understand why they effectively reintroduced for retweets exactly the scaling complexity of what they said was unsustainable for replies – you can unsubscribe from someone’s retweets without unfollowing them, which is exactly the same issue as it previously was for replies. I’d still like the option back. But their track record leaves no room for hope.

I want to add that I understand how they came to make those decisions. In every case, they institutionalised the workaround instead of solving the problem. I just don’t get why. (This is not the whole truth.) I know that a lot of non-technical users find Twitter unreadable because all they see is cryptic one-liners stuffed full of punctuation – a direct consequence of this design policy.

Aristotle Pagaltzis

By nothings at 2012-02-05 12:16:38:

I, and presumably many other people, went through the exact same confusion with twitter. (Particularly because I'd used it a few years ago and it had worked differently, AND because they don't document any of this.)

More details and more issues with twitter like this: http://nothings.livejournal.com/294316.html

Written on 03 February 2012.
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Last modified: Fri Feb 3 22:48:37 2012
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