The Case for Public Replies on Twitter (... or at least the .@ convention)

Recently, there was a big fluff up over Twitter replies--messages that users direct at each other in public using the @ symbol.  Now, you only see public @ messages if you follow the person being spoken to.

It used to be that you had a choice as to whether or not you saw replies that were directed at you or people you followed. The default had most recently been set to off--meaning that you didn't see many of the public messages that your friends sent. Most users didn't even know this was a setting, so few changed it.

How can we know that most users hadn't known about it versus liking the way it was? We can't know for sure, but the fact that *most* users have trouble catching on to using Twitter in the first place and that *most* users will just leave the default up on any feature in any web service is a good indication that this was not a conscious vote for the setting.

In fact, many were unaware that they weren't seeing all of the Tweets from their friends--I certainly didn't.  These were people they had signed up to follow the conversations of.  It would be an odd assumption to think you weren't seeing all public messages.

The effect?

Discovery of new people to follow has gone way down. One rarely encounters the usernames of new people they don't follow anymore.  It goes both ways as well.  Not only is my own discovery of new people way down, but since the change, the number of relevent, interesting people who have found me has gone way down.   No offense to recent followers, but now I hardly look at who follows me, because it's often people I have no connection to who never chime in on conversations--because they can't see conversations.

Instead of a more organic discovery mechanism based on overheard conversations in your close proximity, most new followers come from recommendation services, PR lists, and WeFollow.  For whatever reason, the quality and relevence of these followers seems to be much lower.

I'd be willing to bet that, across the board, the follow back ratio of new followers of popular people has gone way down.  The lack of discovery is making relevent connection difficult and unlikely.

Fred Wilson argues that hiding public replies increases signal to noise--a big problem for him given the number of people he follows on Twitter. That's true--tweets not directed at Fred or people he knows are less likely to be relevent to him.

So who does this affect?  What is their preference and what are the alternatives?  Also, how does it change Twitter usage?   Also, how does this relate to the overall core value proposition of Twitter?

In Fred's case, not seeing replies increases his signal to noise, but is that really why? What makes something noise? The average Twittter user sends about a quarter of his messages as replies. Chances are, most of those are going to people they know.  While Twitter networks can often have a fair bit of overlap, let's say that 2/3 of my replies are directed at people he doesn't know. That means that 2/3 of 25% of my tweets--or 17% of them--are his issue.

But, even then, is it really true that every tweet I send as a reply outside of Fred's network isn't relevent to Fred? What if I'm writing "@frozen2late I don't think Carlos Delgado is going to come back this season"? Fred's a big Met fan, too. It's hard to believe he wouldn't want to weigh in with a "@ceonyc Josh thinks if we don't get Delgado back, we're screwed."

Here's an example, albeit on Facebook, of how someone else got value from a conversation that wasn't intended for them:


Some of these replies are very relevent to Fred, judged on content alone. There's no reason why anything I write in a reply would be any different from a relevency perspective than any other Tweet.  Sure, I might occasionally tweet out "@zoedisco Funny!" and that's a meaningless tweet to Fred--but is it any more meaningless than when I tweet out that I'm going to bed or that I ate some ice cream--not directed at anyone in particular.

What's also important is what is good for Twitter as a service and a community.  There have been stories about Twitter's engagement issues--that most people join and don't Tweet at all, or stop soon after they start.  This isn't any different from any other site.  One thing we do know is that on any site where there are network effects--the benefit to finding more people that you know or feel are worth following is clear. 

It's no different than walking into a party late.  If no one shows you around, you need to be able to insert yourself in other people's conversations otherwise you're just going to feel left out and leave early.

So while someone following 400 people might feel like replies are overwhelming, those following 3 people really need those public replies to discover new people.  People need to remember that there are many more people *not* using your service than users.

So what's the solution?  I think we should default back to public replies and let people like Fred who follow 100's of people opt out of them--because he represents the minority.  Not only that, but I'm sure he has a few people who are the worst offenders and maybe he just needs to unfollow them altogether.

Or, you could perhaps do give people the choice to opt out at the app level--which would also solve Fred's problem because he's reading these tweets on his phone half the time--and that's probably when it's most annoying.

In the meantime, I've circumvented the hiding of my tweet replies by throwing a period in front of them--the .@ convention for public replies. This way, the person sees the reply and so does everyone else.  I'd like to see more of this, because I want to see who my friends are talking to and discover more people that way.  I think it's also important to the growth an engagement of the service overall.