Twitter breaks its social network:how quickly can it fix it?

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A seemingly trivial tweak to the social messaging website's defaults has users up in arms - and threatens its expansion

What looks like an innocuous note on the Twitter blog last night has instead touched off a firestorm. If you can touch off a firestorm on a social network. Anyway.

The note said:

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.

I know: you're saying "huh?"

Here's how it works. Twitter is a non-reciprocal social network: A may "follow" (see the tweets of) B, but B doesn't have to follow A. Instead, B might follow C (whom A doesn't follow), and send comments to C - which, in the evolving language of Twitter, are prefixed by "@".

Thus B might say:

@C you went to the Flight of the Conchords gig? Album's great!

Until last night, A would have seen that tweet. And, if A was a Conchords fan, or respected B's opinion, then they might also be interested in C - who seems to have the same interests (at least on satirical music/TV series).

But with the tweak, that doesn't happen. Because B is addressing C - even though it's public, in the "timeline" - it doesn't appear in A's list of "things B said".

This is not popular - there's already the #fixreplies meme - and Evan Williams, Twitter's chief executive, has responded "Reading people's thoughts on the replies issue. We're considering alternatives. Thanks for your feedback."

While it was a user preference that you could choose not to see messages directed to someone you didn't follow, what has annoyed people is that it's now a default - and you can't change it. (Putting words in front, so the @C is embedded somewhere in the message, or even an underscore - such as _@C - does work, but it's a hoop that people who had previously chosen to see everything don't want to jump through.)

The wider point about this though is that it cuts to the heart of how you make social networking effective. Twitter has been likened to a giant cocktail party: pretty much everything is in the open (apart from people who "protect" their updates, meaning you have to request to see them). The idea that you can serendipitiously come across interesting people by watching the interplay of people you already follow with people you don't has been one of its attractions.

Similarly on Facebook, where having befriended somebody, you can cruise through their friends and see if there are others you'd like to get connected to. In essence, we're trying to reduce the six degrees of separation to one (within the natural limits of our ability to properly befriend large numbers of people - which is limited, apparently by the folds in our brain, to about 150, aka Dunbar's number).

Really, we need an anthropologist to weigh in here..

Biz Stone, the co-founder who wrote the original blogpost, did seem to realise that this might interfere with how people used Twitter, but brushed it off:

Spotting new folks in tweets is an interesting way to check out new profiles and find new people to follow. Despite this update, you'll still see mentions or references linking to people you don't follow. For example, you'll continue to see, "Ev meeting with @biz about work stuff" even if you don't follow @biz. We'll be introducing better ways to discover and follow interesting accounts as we release more features in this space.

Except that the typical way to write the above tweet would be
@ev meeting with @biz about work stuff
which would not then appear in the stream of anyone who doesn't follow @ev - meaning they'd never know about Ev's and Biz's meetups.

Any way you look at it, it's retrograde. The interesting thing will be to see how long it takes @ev and @biz to realise this and roll back the change. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds