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Argh! Change! No! No!

What’s the real reason behind the change to @replies that was made on Twitter today?

Users used to have the choice of seeing replies (“@replies”) directed to people they didn’t follow, but the default was that they didn’t. Most users didn’t even know they had the choice to turn it on, so why disable it for those users who’d chosen to enable it?

I for one really liked the feature; many of the people I follow now were originally found by me seeing only half of what looked like a really interesting conversation. It meant that I couldn’t follow the celebrity twitterers as their tweets overwhelmed my stream but then, after a while I didn’t really want to anyway (Stephen Fry’s lovely and all, but, you know).

I guess it depends on your Twitter usage – for me, as I’ve said before, Twitter is like a big ‘ol IRC channel. If for you it’s a really only a replacement for RSS and you don’t use it very conversationally then this change probably didn’t affect you anyway.

The fact that it was possible to see those @replies directed at people you didn’t follow did bring some interesting problems for application developers. When we built QuizBot for True Knowledge there was originally Twitter integration (they seem to have taken it away now). One of the big discussions was how @quizbot_tk should respond to questions. The idea was that if a user sent their question as @quizbot_tk then QuizBot should respond as a public @reply, but if the user DM’d the question then QuizBot should respond in kind with a DM. This ended up in a long debate, ending up with me writing the following email:

Here’s my train of thought….

For the bot to be able to DM you you have to be following the bot. You can’t DM someone who is not following you. If you follow the bot to allow DMs everything that the bot tweets will appear in your stream.

If you, like me, set your preferences to show all @replies (under settings -> notices) then you will see every @reply that quizbot sends. If it got popular (as we would hope) then quizbot might be tweeting many times an hour.

This would likely cause you to unfollow the bot (I certainly would), meaning that the bot could then not DM you.

So… This means that in essence they are mutually exclusive. If we use @replies it’s likely that no one will follow the bot, meaning that we can’t use DMs at all. If we use DMs everyone must follow the bot, meaning that we can’t use @replies.

Which is how I ended up where I am now…. What do you reckon – always public or always private?

It was a weirdly serious issue for app developers and QuizBot (and no doubt many other apps) will really benefit from this change. I can’t believe it was for that reason they did it though.

So why did they take it away? There’s a blog post today responding to the (roundly negative) feedback that says it’s an engineering decision (even though they originally said it was confusing for users – just tell the truth guys). I’m assuming it must be related to reducing the complexity of copying tweets around. For example, the very big celebrity tweeters often direct 20 or 30 tweets at other users in bursts; if those tweets potentially have to passed to every one of their hundreds of thousands of followers it creates a disproportionate complexity of message delivery.

It would be interesting to see the average number of people that those that follow celebrities follow – I’m betting it would be relatively low compared to the 100 to 1000 of heavy day to day conversational users. If my bet is right this relatively small intersection of users among those that follow the celeb tweeters would hugely reduce the complexity of message delivery.

Personally I’m going to miss the feature a lot, but then like Tom said “I for one, welcome this quieter Twitter. You are so much more bearable.” It certainly means I’ll be able to follow more people, and refollow lots that I’ve unfollowed due to their volume of tweets.

In the grand scheme of things it’s annoying, but more like an insect bite than a missing leg. So no, I won’t be demanding that they #fixreplies, but I might just write a blog post about it.