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Five 'Features' Twitter Needed Yesterday

Twitter continues to be the social media darling of 2009, with most of the major tech blogs and newspapers devoting mountains of column inches in discussing every whim and nuance of the service, particularly about who exactly is going to buy the network. Will it be Apple? Microsoft? Google? Facebook? Oprah?

Okay, I made that last one up. I hope. But Twitter is a big deal, both for the founders, and for those of us who invest heavily in the service with our time. It really feels like we’re on the cusp of something significant. What exactly that is, nobody seems to really know. But we’re definitely part of a cultural shift.

As Hunter S. Thompson might have said, had he been alive today, and used Twitter (which of course he would not, but let’s go with it), “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in San Francisco and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Hunter’s wise words may turn out to be true, but here’s another reality: when it comes to maximising the potential of the service, Twitter.com is the last place you want to go. All the innovative features and add-ons that are making the network really appealing and the place to be are being developed and provided by external software clients, be that TweetDeck, Nambu, Tweetie, Seesmic Desktop or Dabr. To be honest, I could knock-up a more interactive version of Twitter.com using a blackboard and some coloured chalk.

Twitter is riding a wave right now, but it cannot continue forever. If I was Biz Stone, I’d be slightly worried about my drop-off rates, but very concerned that just 27.25 per cent of Twitter’s 20-25 million users log on to Twitter.com to use the service. That number is dropping, too – it was about 32 per cent a month ago. This should be a very disturbing trend for any social network, and with good reason.

Come on Biz – we’re at the tail-end of Web 2.0, for freak’s sake. I’m not quite ready for a holographic version of the service, nor am I asking for that, but I would like to be reassured that when I log on to Twitter.com I’m not being magically transported back to the late-1990s.

Here, then, are five Twitter features that are so unbelievably basic yet essential that it’s maddening that they weren’t added to the platform months ago. Indeed, being absolutely frank, it’s a little OTT to call these add-ons features – they should always have been part of the standard service.

1. A Daily Email Digest Of New Followers

When you first sign up to Twitter, getting that little email telling you that you have a new follower is very cool. It gives you an opportunity to check that person out, and if they look interesting/normal/sane, follow them back.

However, once you’ve passed the threshold on Twitter – and that comes somewhere between 500-1000 followers, those emails can be a real pain in the ass. Sure, you can switch them off, but then you’ve got no idea about who exactly has decided to follow you.

What Twitter needs is simplicity itself – an option to receive just one email digest per day that lists all of your new followers. You can then check them out at your leisure.

I also think it would be nice if Twitter let you know who had unfollowed you, too, but I realise that might clash somewhat with the San Francisco ethos. It’s true that the daily SocialToo email offers both of these features, but shouldn’t it be something Twitter is doing as well?

2. A Way To See All The Users I’ve Blocked

We all block users from time to time – or at least, we should, particularly if they’re spammers, as Twitter monitors the accounts that receive the most block notices and removes them accordingly.

Sometimes, however, we block people for other reasons. And then we forget why, or even who. It would be nice for all of our blocks to be viewable somewhere on our profile page. Just by the person who blocked them, naturally, but at least then you’d have the opportunity to reverse that decision. Maybe a nice extra feature would be the ability to leave a little note to ourselves saying why we blocked them.

Sure, Twitter tells us we can do this manually by re-visiting blocked profiles and unblocking them, but who remembers to do that? And why would you, given you can’t recall why you did it in the first place.

I hate to say it, but Facebook has you beat here, Biz.

3. A Re-Tweet Button

The re-tweet is such a common and relied-upon feature on Twitter now that it’s nothing short of madness that Twitter doesn’t provide an RT button on the home page. Sure, you can manually add your own using some Greasemonkey scripts, but that’s not really the ideal, is it?

4. Threaded Tweets Means Conversations

If Twitter added a way to view conversations with the click of a button my guess is they’d drive an enormous amount of traffic back from the external applications to the site itself. You see users complaining all the time, about how difficult it is to follow discussions on the network. It’s perhaps fair to say that Twitter, as is, isn’t the ideal medium for in-depth conversation, but quick-access to threaded messaging could change all of this.

How A Threaded Discussion Might Look

How A Threaded Discussion Might Look

I’d go a step further and suggest that you should be able to configure your Twitter.com page to show all messages in a ‘tree’ format – that is, showing conversations indented up to a configurable point – or in the flat form as it is now (all on top of each other).

Again, such an obvious and commonplace feature – bulletin boards have been doing it for well over a decade.

5. Filters

There were lots of moans about the changes Facebook recently made to their UI but one thing they did that was quite brilliant was the addition of filters. These allow you to configure your Facebook feed so you only get to see on there what you want.

Now, one can quite validly argue that if you were presented with (and took) the option to filter out some accounts from your Twitter feed then you could perhaps be accused of not entirely operating with good form. If you don’t want to read these folks’ tweets, why not just unfollow them?

Well, I say it’s for the same reason that I don’t want to remove some of my friends from Facebook, too. I like my friends – that’s why they’re on my Facebook – but if you’re an information predator like I am it’s often useful to be able to remove the noise so that you can get to the signal. Sometimes you’re only in the mood to see X on your screen. Sometimes you’re never in the mood to see X on your screen.

I’ve written before how I’m not a fan of blip.fm tweets (although I do like the service itself) and often use TweetDeck to filter these out, certainly on a Friday or Saturday night when they’re far more prevalent. But it would be great if I could go to Twitter.com and configure my feed so that, if I so choose, I never saw these kinds of tweets.

Likewise for lots of other stuff, too. I’m not a football fan, and while tweets about that don’t really annoy me, I think being able to filter out what you want is a great way to optimise your network. When you sign up for somebody, do you have to sign up for everything?

Put it this way: surely a filter is better than an unfollow?

Bonus: The Direct Message System Is Rubbish

I’ve moaned about this before but the DM system on Twitter really is so unbelievably archaic that it’s almost useless once you pass a certain number of follows. This could be improved no-end with the addition of:

  1. A way to mass-delete messages, or at least mark and bulk-delete the unwanted
  2. Threaded messaging (see above)
  3. Group direct messaging (see Facebook, which does it badly, but a lot better)
  4. A way to search my direct messages. I mean, come on.
  5. A way to save/favourite direct messages

Conclusion

This is just off the top of my head. There are a bazillion other improvements that could be made, too – a 30-second window to edit your own tweets would be nice. Sometimes 140 characters isn’t enough, and a way to link those tweets would be grand. It would be timely for Twitter to implement a groups feature, that just let you see the tweets of those you have selected. Maybe you should be able to file users under certain tags or categories, which would also assist in the creation of groups and lists.

By addressing the improvements listed above – which, as said, are hardly huge and fanciful innovations – Twitter could significantly upgrade the functionality of the home page and, in this writer’s opinion, drastically reduce the drop-off rate and get a lot of folks back on Twitter.com.

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