Commentary

Watching Twitter's #Fixreplies Firestorm

What a fun morning I'm having on Twitter search, looking for tweets containing the hashtag #fixreplies. Oops, wait a minute ... since I logged onto the site, a minute and a half ago, 230 more replies have come in with that hashtag. Oops, make that 276. Now make that 326.

So what is everyone all tied up in their underwear about? The settings change that Twitter (415 tweets as of now) announced on its blog yesterday, saying that people would no longer see @replies (453) of people they don't follow. This has caused the first Facebook-style Twitter revolt, as users (489) have poured onto the service to complain. The main complaint about the change is in that without this option, (531), users lose an important resource that tells them who might be interesting to follow, and they're mad (605). (OK, I'll stop with that meme, but you get the drift. Smoke is coming out of Twitter's servers right about now.)

According to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Twitter enacted the change because, "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."

What we're witnessing here is, once again, that it's going to become nigh impossible for any of the popular social nets to make changes without involving users first. If you take a close look at Stone's statement above, what you see is actually a fairly old media response, one assuming that the owner of the media property, in this case, Twitter, knows best:  "receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don't follow in your timeline is undesirable." You can just hear the Twitterati saying, "Undesirable to whom?"
 
The headline  for Stone's statement in the same vein. Reading "Small Settings Update," it assumes that users will also view this as small -- but apparently, it's big (OK, now we're at 1,390 new #fixreplies tweets.)

So what are social nets to do? Put everything to a vote? Not always practical, although Facebook was right to do it with its terms of service, which truly was a big change. So, are they to pack their services with so many potential options that traveling through "settings" for any one of them is a day-long excursion? Also not practical. What they do have to do is float changes with users before they make them, and then gauge the volume of the outcry. Something tells me that they would get a more reasoned approach by communicating potential changes before they happen, rather than dealing with the firestorm that inevitably erupts when users feel that something some of them valued has been snatched from them in the night.

In the current situation, Twitter appears to be weighing the outpouring of feedback, which is good. As @adbroad points out, co-founder Evan Williams tweeted the following 10 hours ago: "Reading people's thoughts on the replies issue. We're considering alternatives. Thanks for your feedback."

But for now, the firestorm is raging, out of control (3,431).
 

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5 comments about "Watching Twitter's #Fixreplies Firestorm ".
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  1. Liz Pullen from Self-Employed, May 13, 2009 at 3:29 p.m.

    This is the best summary of what is happening that I've seen so far. If you read the latest Twitter blog entry, they've changed their story and instead of them eliminating an "undesirable" feature, they now say that technical reasons require them to remove it.

    It's less patronizing but since Twitter has actually expanded its features recently--@replies changed to any @mentions, trending topics on right-hand menu bar, Suggested Users list plus more stuff planned--I'm not sure I fully believe that a small minority of users who choose "all @replies" is really going to send the social network crashing.

    It seems like the new setting would take more effort since Twitter is now filtering out @replies (only from those you follow to those you follow) rather than just send you all the @replies from everyone you follow.

    They might want to make Twitter as functional as a piece of plumbing but doing so also makes it less interesting for me as a user.

  2. Kelly Samardak from Shortstack Photography, May 13, 2009 at 3:54 p.m.

    this is so stupid. I can't possibly constantly follow thousands of people, however, I can interact with people who happen to reply to me. There is a relationship situation that users should be able to control, and now twitterers aren't in control of their relationships.

  3. Neil Sanderson from neilsanderson.com, May 14, 2009 at 10:18 a.m.

    Excellent article Catharine. Although I personally dislike seeing replies to people I don't follow, it seems many users feel differently. So how hard can it be for Twitter to offers users a choice?

  4. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, May 14, 2009 at 11 a.m.

    Thanks for the comments, retweets and recommendations all. So, for the record, my browser quit counting new @fixreplies tweets at 12,032, and that was only mid-afternoon.

  5. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., May 14, 2009 at 12:35 p.m.

    You actually missed the biggest story -- and the most relevant piece to MediaPost. This is a story about a new company making old mistakes when it comes to handling a PR crisis.

    If you think that Twitter's decision to eliminate third party tweets of those you follow from appearing in your personal Twitter feed, you're buying their fabricated story. (OK, it's an outright lie.) Let's look more closely at recent events:

    * Twitter has suffered a number of major outages. Most recently: one this past Sunday that was much publicized.
    * Two days later, Twitter announces this change, saying that it was justified based on a poor user experience
    * Twitter's traffic is exploding month over month, proving that user experience problems aren't exactly holding back adoption of the service.
    * Twitter's product is pretty much as brain dead simple as you can find out there, calling into question any "user experience complexity" arguments as well.
    * The social graph creates a geometric increase in resource consumption. You remember the old Faberge shampoo commercial where "They tell to friends, and so on..." and how quickly that escalates? When your feed is updated by two generations of activity instead of just your "immediate family" of followees, the number of updates and its demand on IT resources multiplies accordingly.

    This was not at all about users. This was about a company bluffing their way to remove product features that were causing their systems to crash.

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