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Majority Rules: What Does Twitter's Reply Change Mean For You?

Yesterday, Twitter made what it termed a “small settings update” to their system. Specifically, they’ve updated the Notices section in your Settings (on Twitter.com) so that you now no longer have any control over the replies you see on the network.

Previously, there were three settings available to users:

  1. all @ replies
  2. @ replies to the people I’m following
  3. no @ replies

Notices

Option two is the default, and has been since December, 2007. Prior to this, there was only one setting available, and it was option one.

Now in your Notices page there are no settings available for this at all. Twitter has re-configured the system so all users can only see replies from people they are following.

Notices

(Note, with amusement, Twitter’s ‘help’ gaff on the right sidebar. The link also leads to a now outdated help page.)

This has, as you would imagine, caused a bit of a stink. But to whom? Who is affected, how will this change impact the Twitter stream, was Twitter right to act this way, and what, if anything, can be done?

A Little Bit Of Twistory

Way, way back in a time before dinosaurs, religion and bacon double-cheeseburgers – December 5, 2007, to be precise – Twitter made some changes to their reply settings. This was when we were first given the opportunity to control which replies you received on the network, as per the image I presented earlier.

On May 12, 2008, Twitter CEO Evan Williams (@ev) wrote a blog entry that went into a lot more detail about how replies worked, predominantly to address “a lot of confusion” about the feature. Williams explained how this was now an important part of the network and went on to mention that 98 per cent of Twitter users left their replies on the ‘default’ setting – that is, they only saw @ replies to the people they are following.

If you read the comments above Ev’s announcement, you’ll note that it was warmly received.

Note that this was a year ago exactly to the changes that have just been made.

Who Does This Affect?

The people most affected by this change to the system are obviously those who selected and enjoyed the option to see all @replies. This includes:

  1. Those who enjoyed Twitter as a medium for chat
  2. Those who like to follow conversations in detail between all involved parties
  3. Those who used the all replies setting to meet new people
  4. People who complained about ‘reply spam’

Who Does This Not Affect?

Almost everybody else. As mentioned above, back in May last year 98 per cent of Twitter users had their account set to its default settings. Twitter’s popularity has completely boomed in the last 12 months and one imagines that number is probably closer to 99+ per cent now. These people will not be affected in any way by the changes.

Indeed, while it is fair to say that the 1-2 per cent of Twitter users who did use and like the all replies feature represents hundreds of thousands of users, this tweak from Twitter won’t impact them in the way in which many of them (as well as many websites and commentators) are concerned.

There’s A Small Chance You Might Have Been Doing It Wrong All This Time

Here’s the thing: any message that starts with an @ on Twitter is a reply. It’s always been a reply; it’s meant to be a reply. Twitter recently adjusted the home page so that the @Replies tab became @Username, and it now lists any mention of your name in any tweet, as opposed to just those that began with it. But that didn’t change this one simple thing: start a message with @, and it’s a reply.

What this means is that whenever you open a tweet with @, Twitter reads the submission as a reply. This:

@Sheamus is a great guy!

Is a very different message to this:

I tell you who's a great guy - @Sheamus!

Twitter absorbs these messages in different ways. The first, the reply, will be seen by the following people:

  1. @Sheamus
  2. Anybody who is following @Sheamus and the sender of the message
  3. Anybody who, previously, had Twitter set to see all replies

Everybody else – that is, those 98+ per cent of Twitter users who left their account on the default settings, and the entire network now, will not see this message.

(You can of course see all messages using Twitter search or by visiting a user’s profile, but these are different to the basic way the system works.)

As for the second message, which is a more standard tweet, the following people will see it:

  1. @Sheamus
  2. Anybody who is following the sender of the message

Because of the way the @Username part has been positioned, Twitter accepts the message as a standard tweet, and not a reply. However, due to the changes made in the replies/mentions part of the network, I will still be notified of this tweet in my @Sheamus tab (on Twitter.com, or in my choice of Twitter software client).

The changes made to Twitter now mean that all messages that start with @ will be visible only to the recipient and anybody who is following that person and the sender of the message.

Hence, if you want, for example, to make a recommendation about somebody to your followers, do not start the message like this:

@Sheamus is somebody we should all follow!

Start it like this:

We should all follow @Sheamus!

(You may like to do this now for practice. ;) )

What About #FollowFriday?

In my article on #followfriday within this blog, I added a tip at the bottom that states the following:

When making #followfriday recommendations, don’t start your tweet with @username. Otherwise, Twitter thinks it’s a reply, and only that person (or another user who is following you both) will see it. Start the tweet with #followfriday or some text (i.e., ‘I recommend @userone @usertwo @userthree #followfriday’).

This was always good practice and is especially so now Twitter has made this change. Despite concerns, this adjustment does not impact #followfriday in any way – unless you’ve been doing it wrong all along. :)

Why Has Twitter Done This?

It is perhaps a case of majority rules. If 98+ per cent of people do not use a feature and Twitter believes that it is not important, then it is perhaps understandable why it would be removed.

There is some speculation that Twitter has done this to appease the influx of celebrity users to the platform, as these people really don’t want to be bombarded with replies from all and sundry, and certainly not the proles. Of course, this argument makes no sense, as all the celebrities who signed up for Twitter in the last year – and this includes Ashton, Oprah, Shaq and many others – would have benefited from Twitter’s default replies setting, and only seen messages from those folk they were following themselves. This, of course, as we have studied in the past, is often a very small number.

Another reason why Twitter might have implemented this adjustment could be to eliminate complaints about reply spam. Reply spam is something that only really affects people who previously chose to see all replies on Twitter, and it occurs when one of the accounts they are following is extremely chatty with their network to a point where the recipient – who, remember, has made the choice to see all replies – find the level of tweets uncomfortable. This will often lead to a complaint to the Twitterer, or an unfollow.

I say: surely when you signed up for ALL replies, you expected and knew you were going to receive ALL replies? If you then go on to complain about receiving ALL the replies, you haven’t really got a leg to stand on.

Either way it can and should, as said, be easily resolved with an unfollow, which remains the single-most powerful feature on the Twitter network.

What Will Change?

Predominantly, the way many people have tweeted in the past. I think from reading the Twitter stream this morning this adjustment has revealed something of a fallacy about the network – that everybody, or certainly most people, had their settings configured to see all replies. As we’ve seen, virtually nobody did, at least relatively, and while it’s evident that many ‘power-users’ liked the all replies feature, most of them were able to do this because they did not follow a large amount of people. As mentioned, the all replies setting was the only option way back when, and many of the power-users on Twitter have been around since these times, and it is perhaps all they have known (or chosen to know).

(Of course, and if I may be so bold, these folk often ‘shout’ the loudest too, making the event seem perhaps of greater magnitude than it actually is, certainly for most of the network, who will see no changes at all.)

Indeed, I’ve polled my own followers this morning and checked out the follow counts of others I’ve seen who are concerned about the change, and in the vast majority of cases, with a few notable exceptions, all of these users were following a modest amount of people – typically a few hundred, with the exceptions following a thousand or more. Reading some of the tweets of these individuals, many have made observations about how they must “enjoy the pain”. :)

I think one could create an argument that new followers across the network may well dip, if only a little, as many people who selected all replies used it as a way to meet and follow new users. Of course, this will only have a 1-2 per cent impact, at best.

It is also worth pointing out that the option to receive no replies has been removed as well. I’m really not sure why anybody apart from perhaps a bot or other automated account would choose this feature, but there is some talk, as above, that a few of the A-listers set their accounts like this, which perhaps further underlines how some of these individuals either do not or will not get or accept how it’s supposed to work.

Predominantly, of course, those users that had their account set to all replies previously will immediately start to see a lot less in their timeline. For many this will be unwelcome; for others, who were perhaps not aware that this could be adjusted, it might be of some relief.

If you enjoyed reading all the ripples of a conversation, including the comments from those folk you were not following, you will now have to follow these people – and therefore, theoretically, everybody – to get the same effect.

If you were somebody who enjoyed meeting new people thanks to the cross-replies of your friends, this experience is now lost. In many ways, this perhaps increases the validity of something like #followfriday.

Will It Change Back?

It might. There’s certainly enough support and anger at this decision – the #fixreplies hashtag has made the top of Twitter’s trending topics feature and surely will be brought to their attention. You can voice your concern by using it, too, in your tweets.

Historically, however, Twitter has not been one to reverse even the boldest of adjustments, but there is always a possibility for exception.

What Should Twitter Have Done?

Absolutely nothing. The option to select which replies you want to receive should have been left as it was. Any changes they wanted to make should have been in the form of richer tutorials and documentation explaining how the different kinds of replies impacted the user – it was only, I dare say, confusing to some because the accompanying ‘help’ was so poor.

As we have seen, only a very minor part of the Twitter network enjoyed, or were even aware of the facility to see all replies, but to blanketly snuff them out with this “small settings update” seems at best a little casual, and at worse amounts to complete and total indifference.

I do not, and have never aside from experimentation, set my configuration to receive all replies. It’s just far too much noise for me, and I would assume is the case for anybody who follows X or more people (where X, in my case, was much above 500 – you will have your own threshold). But the choice to do this should be left with us, not Twitter.

@ev, @biz, @jack, @stop and the rest of Twitter’s elite have, at best, a very modest impact and interaction with the Twitter stream. Indeed, I don’t believe it would be unfair to say that, for the most part, the bulk of their tweets are very much of the increasingly-derided, “What are you doing?” variety. To this day, I remain unconvinced that, perhaps a little like J.J. Abrams and Lost, they are not making it up as they go along.

Either way, I am not sure they are the greatest judge of what is best for the Twitter network as a whole. Or even, for that matter, the 1-2 per cent who will be most impacted – and upset – by these changes. In the future, I would welcome and hope to see a more two-way discourse with a variety of representatives from across the Twitter spectrum before changes of this magnitude are made – at the very least, it would be nice to know they are coming just a little in advance.

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