Twitter Unveils Big New Changes to Prove the Fun Ain’t Gone
Virtually all of Twitter’s best ideas weren’t Twitter’s ideas. The 140-character thing? That was so tweets could be text messages. @-replies? Users came up with that well before the platform supported them. People were #tweeting #hashtags to #talk about specific #subjects long before anyone with a Twitter nametag slapped a blue underline on them and created dedicated pages. Retweets? RT @SomeGuy13 “That was me.”
Twitter is lucky to have a base of deeply devoted users, and the company is at its best when it gives those users what they want. And what they want, it turns out, is to be able to talk to each other.
This morning, Twitter announced a handful of new features that will be available “over the coming months,” whenever that is. No longer will usernames (@wired, @justinbieber, @babyanimals) count against your 140-character limit. Nor will photos, videos, polls, or links to tweets. (Normal links still count.) You won’t even see many of those links or usernames, which Twitter now treats more like attachments than part of the tweet. You can now re-tweet or quote-tweet yourself, in case you think the world needs to hear of your genius all over again. And if you start a tweet with “@” but aren’t replying to someone—“@wired you’re so great thanks for everything” if you need an illustrative example—all your followers will still see it. You don’t need a period at the beginning.
Now, these changes are important. They are intelligence—about Twitter, and more importantly about how its users use. They are the answers to a how’re-we-doing survey that hundreds of millions of people filled out.
So what has Twitter learned about itself? Well, twitterers want to upload pictures and video. They want to self-promote until they’re blue in the face. They want to tweet stuff. And retweet that stuff. Especially if it’s their own stuff.
What people don’t want is to spend time remembering the rules of Twitter engagement. They don’t want to mention two people, add a photo, and then have three characters left. They don’t want to have to remember what goes before the @ symbol, why, and when. They don’t want to upload a photo only to be forced to rifle through a thesaurus looking for a shorter word for “fantastic,” then give up and use “gr8” like it’s 2004 and they’re on AIM again. Social networking is all about instinctive, frictionless sharing, not careful formatting and research.
Facebook excels at this: Sure, it can be an inscrutable mix of long-winded political diatribes, 360-degree videos, and old photos of your ex-boyfriend, but something about the freedom it offers to post anything, any way you want, makes people come back. Being interesting in 140 characters is a test of writerly acumen—like that unsourced but wonderful quote says, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” When most of those characters go to something other than words, the test gets harder. With Facebook as a competitor, Twitter needs to be easy.
Of course, Twitter can’t just try and be everything to everyone. “They don’t want to become Facebook,” says industry analyst Rob Enderle, “because then they’d go bye-bye.” Two things define Twitter: It’s fast, and everyone uses it the same way. That’s why, even as rumors fly to the contrary, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others have maintained that the 140-character limit isn’t going anywhere. It’s not so much about the character count itself, Enderle says, but the spirit it creates. “Twitter just lends itself to that very brief, very fast conversation,” he says. It makes the product better—Twitter is much faster on mobile than Facebook—and makes the whole place feel more lively. That’s why news types flock to Twitter, for instance: So much is going on. Longer posts would mean fewer posts, and you wouldn’t want to read them as much, and Twitter would be a Frankenstein’s monster made of Medium and Facebook that wouldn’t be any fun at all.
That’s why making it easier to post photos, videos, and links is smart. Those are easy ways for people to share more without requiring an hour of focused reading from their followers. Until now, though, Twitter has effectively penalized users for adding them, forcing them to give up 24 precious characters just to add a photo. Now, you get 140 characters for text. Everything else is Twitter’s problem.
Some of these features are designed to sate the power users, who are growing restless. At the same time, Twitter the company is desperate to get more people using Twitter the product, and sticking around once they do. That depends in many ways on giving users, especially new ones, ways to find and interact with great tweets. The best organizational tool on Twitter is hashtags, without which Twitter’s still not smart enough to know what you’re talking about. A 2012 study called hashtags “first-order organizational acts.” They don’t foster conversation, but they do sort it. Twitter’s biggest problem is that people try it, get bored by lack of engagement, and leave. Hashtags are a surprisingly powerful way to help people engage; not counting them might convince people to use them more.
You could convincingly argue that Twitter still hasn’t fixed its biggest problems. Harassment and trolling make the service a hostile place for many users. Its relationship with the developer community is broken. And Facebook is out there, pushing into live video and all things real-time. You could argue those things, and I wouldn’t disagree with you.
Still, Dorsey and co. are smart to see that Twitter is the most fun to use when you’re using it with other people. You’re getting in canoes with twelve people and @Dennys, you’re captioning the latest memes, you’re watching the Oscars alongside a million people not in your living room. Twitter is Twitter because Twitter moves fast, and because everyone’s in the pile together. That might mean you need a character limit, but it makes just about everything else fungible. If Twitter can avoid becoming a broadcast medium and instead remain the place the world goes to talk about stuff, Twitter might still have a chance.
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