Twitter Broke the Cardinal Rule

There is a rather large uproar on Twitter this morning.  Just take a moment to peruse the trending topics and you’ll see what I mean.  In particular, look at the fixreplies tag and the twitterfail tag.  This is all in response to a change in how replies/notices are handled as described on the Twitter blog in a post from the twelfth:

We’ve updated the Notices section of Settings to better reflect how folks are using Twitter regarding replies. Based on usage patterns and feedback, we’ve learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow—it’s a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today’s update removes this undesirable and confusing option.

My first response was to jump in, complaining about my own peeves with the changed functionality.  Much hay is being made about how this alters the discoverability of new people and conversations.  Personally, I fall on the other side, that my volume of updates from others has increased diluting the quality of signal I was receiving.  I may be in the minority of people who is fine with the alternative discovery mechanism’s that Biz highlights in the post.

Being in the minority, it is easy to dismiss my particular take on this change.  Except for that fact that Twitter broke the cardinal rule of application development: Never take away functionality you have already delivered to users.

No matter how you feel about the change, Twitter has taken back capabilities people were using.  I don’t care that their rationale is based on “observed” usage.  It doesn’t matter how each user has a particular setting configured or how they make use of a feature.  You simply do not take features away, it is an instant recipe for a support disaster and breaks an unspoken contract between the developer and the user.

Worse, in this instance it is more than a little patronizing. The subtext is that Twitter knows better than you how you use the application so it is okay for them to just go ahead and change it based on that superior insight.  This is not the procrastination principle that lead to direct support for addressed messages, so-called at-messages, or hash tags and search.  In both of those instances, features were added, features users did not have to use but could if it fit their own particular needs or desires.

As an application developer, one regularly tasked with addressing scalability and performance concerns, I have my suspicions over why replies originally morphed into notices mnetions and what I further suspect directly informs this most recent, ill-received change.  For me, my personal beliefs just make the apparent we-know-better-ism sting all the more smartly.

There was also a huge opportunity missed here, as nicely encapsulated by Clay Shirky’s response to the change in functionality:

Clay Shirky's response to 5/12 replies change on Twitter

Using the intelligence about the social graph Twitter must already possess to allow each user to expand or restrict the flow of updates to their own tastes.  Such an addition would have been far more consistent with past innovations amplifying the disappointment even more.  I sure hope that Evan and his rag-tag band at Control Yourself are paying attention especially since the kind of addition Shirky suggests would be such a strong win for user freedom.

6 Replies to “Twitter Broke the Cardinal Rule”

  1. Amen.

    Another thought is that Evan’s free software alternative lets individual server operators, assuming they have the coding chops, hack in or out their favorite or despised features respectively.

  2. I’ll admit I haven’t delved into this too deeply, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some ulterior motive at work here. Such as, they ran the numbers and decided they could save $x on SMS fees or whatever if they cut out non-friend replies. I always have to wonder what the heck’s going on on the business side of Twitter.

  3. They’ve done this before. Remember when they killed track?

    Interesting to see the suggestion here that this will cause folks to switch to Identica. People on friendfeed are saying that this will cause folks to switch over to ff. I’m not sure if this will cause any significant numbers of users to switch at all.

  4. I am not suggesting that people will or should switch, per se. My point in the post itself was that Evan would be served intensely well by hopping on the innovative use of the social graph Shirky suggests that Ev and Biz just totally missed.

    That and for folks that feel super strongly about Twitter doing them wrong, the fundamental nature of it being a closed and proprietary system really means there is fsck all they can do about it. Other than to download and start hacking it themselves. Anything else, even switching to or FriendFeed still leaves them at the mercy of someone else deciding what they can and cannot do with their social messaging.

  5. I’ve been away from twitter for most of this Replies BS. From the PoV of a 3%er this this is a stupid idea I’ve found most of my tweeps through the interesting conversations I have seen. = Fail

    It may not make me switch (yet) but I am not happy.

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