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.

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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.”

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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

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