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The thin blue line: Is Twitter mostly for news delivery or for having conversations?

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Cosmetic or design changes in a service often cause an outcry among users, but Twitter’s launch of a new “conversation” feature seems to have triggered a kind of existential angst for many, particularly those who have come to see it in a very specific way — i.e., as a real-time news delivery service where links or updates are the most important thing. But is that the real purpose of Twitter, or is it supposed to be a place where people can carry on conversations about important topics? The two may not be mutually exclusive, but the tension between them is likely to be an ongoing issue for the company.

In case you are just catching up, here’s how it works: when users reply to a tweet, the new feature connects that reply to the original tweet with a thin blue line, and strings together up to three replies in a user’s timeline or stream. As more than one irritated user (including blogger turned VC MG Siegler) has pointed out, it isn’t entirely clear why some conversations are connected in this way and others aren’t — and some have also complained that if a tweet gets a lot of replies, it means they see the same original tweet multiple times.

For others, the most irritating thing about the new feature is that it interrupts the chronological flow of the timeline. In the past, the company has stuck to the idea that a user’s stream is supposed to be a river of content that flows by and shouldn’t be re-ordered or messed with — and every time it introduces something that interrupts it, such as promoted tweets, it gets a backlash.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 1.24.05 PM

Becoming more like Facebook?

In many ways, as Om pointed out in his post, the fact that the conversation view has been rolled out reinforces how much pressure there is on the company to generate more engagement and user growth, as it prepares for what everyone is expecting to be a blockbuster public share issue at some point next year. This is the same kind of pressure that Facebook has faced, and one of the aspects of the new Twitter feature that seems to bother some users is that it makes the service feel more Facebook-ish.

What I find fascinating is the dichotomy between those who see Twitter primarily as a place for links or news — and therefore see conversations as annoying interruptions — and those who would prefer to have discussions with other users, and see the new feature as a welcome return to what Twitter used to be: namely, a place for them to find people with similar interests and share their thoughts.

shouting, free speech

The view that it is an annoying interruption is probably summed up best by Dan Mitchell at Fortune, who says in a post that Twitter is “wrecking Twitter to make it more popular.” He says this is a good idea for the company but not for those who want to follow the news, and he contrasts what he calls the “yammering” of conversations with those who want to use Twitter in “a more serious, grown-up way”:

“Twitter fights no doubt bring many more eyeballs to Twitter than do, say, links to stories about Syria or climate change. But for people who use Twitter as an information resource rather than as a platform for inherently inarticulate ‘conversation,’ the cacophony wastes time and ruins the experience.”

I confess that I’ve taken part in my fair share of Twitter fights and what some might see as silly or obnoxious discussions, but I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more with Mitchell’s point. For me, the ability to get links and news from Twitter is a huge part of the value of the service, but the discussion about those links or news is almost as valuable — and in some cases more so. For me, the blue line may be jarring, but it also allows me to spot conversations I might be interested in either reading or taking part in.

Conversations have value too

In that sense, I am a lot closer to the view that Will Oremus advances in a post at Slate, in which he says that he was prepared to be irritated by the new feature as well, but the more he thought about it the more he came to the conclusion that it was actually a good thing:

“That’s when the rationale for Twitter’s seemingly indefensible switch-up struck me. The reason the festoons are few and far between is because hardly anyone holds actual conversations on Twitter. At least, that’s true in my timeline, which is full of techies, academics, journalists, politicians, and comedians, self-appointed or otherwise. Everyone’s too busy barking into their own megaphones to respond to anyone else.”


Bijan Sabet, a venture capitalist blogger (and an investor in Twitter) notes that this feature — which he loves — is much better than the cacophony of Facebook, where comments appear in a jumble beneath the original post. The best thing about the conversation feature, Sabet says, is that the company has managed to make discussion more obvious “without corrupting the atomic unit of the tweet.” That’s not an easy assignment, and it could be argued that Twitter has accomplished it without interfering too much with the other aspects of the service that some users prefer — i.e., information delivery.

As Hunter Walk pointed out in a tweet though, some of this is Twitter’s fault as well, or at least a by-product of the emphasis that Twitter itself has put on getting users to follow celebrities (very few of whom ever reply or have conversations) and brand accounts. For long-term users like me, much of this seemed to go against the nature of Twitter as a place to hold discussions, and turned it into a one-way megaphone for brands — personal and otherwise.

To some extent, in other words, the company seems to be trying to suck and blow at the same time with this new feature. Will it be able to walk that line and appeal to both those who want discussion and those who just want a real-time news delivery service? That remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Aaron Amot

18 Responses to “The thin blue line: Is Twitter mostly for news delivery or for having conversations?”

  1. The idea that this new feature is better for conversations just doesn’t work for my experience of Twitter. I use it primarily to converse with a group of up to 25 friends, among whom 3 or 4 conversations on different topics can be going on at once. It used to be easy to follow the stream of tweets on the chronological timeline, occasionally clicking on expand conversation if you wanted to check what had been said a few tweets back.

    Now, with the dreaded blue line, we are having a nightmare of a time following anything. Someone tweets, several people reply – those replies spawn several different ‘conversations’ / blue lines and everyone’s tweets end up a jumble on each other’s screens. And heaven help if someone tweets a new standalone comment – totally overlooked as it gets pushed down the page by the multiple versions of the same darn conversation.

    This isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to change – it IS a botch job for those of us who are actually engaging in conversations (note the plural!) and following info tweets. Really hope Twitter installs an option to switch this off.

  2. Gloria Buono-Daly

    Very interesting topic and really enjoyed your article. I tweet to share information, spread news I find interesting, etc….rarely ever do I submit my comments with Twitter unless it is unbiased, educates and informative in nature.

  3. Unfortunately Twitter has become infected with the scourge of all social media: corporate advertisers. So in my opinion, twitter is neither of the two things that are mentioned in the heading. Twitter is one big commercial.

  4. Tom Leckrone

    I did like the “stream of information” concept, but I can see the value of showing the conversation to Twitter and some users. If tweets that appeared out of chronological order were to appear as”faded,” this might be a nice compromise. @semprephi

    • Rhonda Merrick

      It doesn’t have to be like that. Twitter makes it possible to reach people fast and organise them and chat with them or at least keep track of what they’re up to.

      follow this…
      I wanted radio stations to play my songs so…

      I put about 100 stations on a twitter list
      Copied the Twitter handle
      Went to the website of each station
      Found the ‘how to submit your music’ page
      Pinned that page on my Pinterest and put the stations Twitter handle in the description
      The station gets a tweet…but not from ME asking to be on their station… it’s a tweet about THEM telling thousands of people how great they are and how to submit new music
      Then I email my song to them
      quite often the station will retweet me or reply
      and i always tweet back and mention the new song i just sent.
      I look at the trending topics of the day
      Go SEE what people are saying
      RT and ask questions or join in chat that interests me
      I do this everyday for a few minutes.
      knowing that new people are gonna know about me and therefore my music
      I’m genuine on there and I listen as well as talk on there
      It’s much faster than the online customer service center for just about any large company on the planet.
      Oh, I have an ‘interesting person’ list and check it often. I don’t follow people that don’t follow me (try not to) but i’ll follow their tweets when i feel like checking that list.
      you get what you put into it.
      @RhondaMerrick and @RhondasSongs

  5. Liz Pullen

    There has been a misguided focus on celebrities on Twitter since about 2009 (when Oprah signed on) that hasn’t abated. It’s really sad when you look at some people’s Tweetstream and all they are doing to trying to get the attention of some actor, singer, reality TV cast member or YouTube celeb (“Follow me! RT me! Say ‘Hi!’ to me, it’s my birthday!”).

    The whole system of verified accounts is odd. I’ve seen some verified accounts (which are supposed to be authorized to prevent impersonation) and I’ve never heard of these people and one had less than 1000 followers. And it’s not just celebrities, it seems like any journalist (who isn’t a blogger) has a verified account no matter how little they use Twitter and how few followers they have.

  6. It’s confusing how many will follow you on Twitter and when you start a tweet chat with them, most would not reply.

    I primarily use Twitter as info source but by Jove, I expect replies from my tweets too. Is etiquette becoming an issue here too?

  7. Alan Ralph

    Personally, I’m a big fan of the way that Echofon (my preferred Twitter client) handles conversations. Posts in your stream that are part of a conversation have an icon next to them with a pair of speech bubbles – clicking on the icon brings up a box containing the conversation at the point where you’ve just read, and you can scroll back to see what was said before and by whom. I really hope that they don’t change this!

    The biggest problem with conversations in Facebook is that once you’ve expanded them you cannot collapse them back down again. Google+ at least managed to fix that problem, and I would hope that Twitter learn from both Facebook’s and Google’s mistakes.

  8. Ruby (紅玉)

    1) Twitter ALREADY HAD a conversation view, that work just fine, without breaking TL’s.

    2) The new line makes conversations exponentially harder to follow than before.

    It’s an all around failure that needs to go away.