By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm
Boy, you can’t take your eyes off Twitter for even a few hours without falling behind. I’m late on reporting on the fact that Twitter tweaked its settings yesterday so that tweets that begin with an @username (so that they address that person specifically, like this one) no longer show up in the feeds of third parties who follow the person who wrote the tweet but not the one it’s addressed to.
The weirdest thing about the change was not the tweak itself so much as how Twitter cofounder Biz Stone referred to it as a “Small Settings Update” in the blog post announcing it. Biz said that the change reflected how people use Twitter, and that it was made because many users find it disjointed and confusing to see a tweet from someone they follow that’s addressed to a random third party. I don’t presume to think I know more about what the average Twitter user wants than Biz Stone does, but I do know for sure that one of my very favorite things about Twitter is coming in in the middle of conversations between someone I know (at least as a fellow Twitter user) and someone I don’t know. It may be the single best way to find interesting new people to follow–it sure beats using Twitter’s “Suggested Users” feature to find Mariah Carey–and it was startling to hear its abupt removal described as no big deal. (Actually, Biz pretty much celebrated its death–he called it “confusing and undesirable.”)
Lots of other Twitter users were as dumbstruck as I was. They tweeted up a storm of protest, and Biz responded with a blog post this morning acknowledging their ire (and suddenly saying that Twitter made the change in part for technical reasons, a factor he didn’t mention in the first post). And in a follow-up post this afternoon, he reiterated that technical issues forced the change, and that seeing @replies to people you weren’t following was confusing. But he did say that the company is working on building better sharing options, nd he did throw a short-term bone to unhappy users:
…we’re making a change such that any updates beginning with @username (that are not explicitly created by clicking on the reply icon) will be seen by everyone following that account. This will bring back some serendipity and discovery and we can do this very soon.
The thing is, this further adjustment leaves things in a more muddled state than they were in the first place: Users will now see some @replies to third parties they aren’t following, but not all of ’em.
As I write, this is an ongoing story–and one of interest only to Twitteraddicts, in case you couldn’t tell–but it leaves me thinking that nobody but nobody has truly figured out what makes Twitter Twitter. Including Twitter. As I said in Ten Twitter Misconceptions, it’s somehow wildly popular and profoundly misunderstood at the same time, in a way I can’t remember any other tech product or service ever matching.