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March 19, 2011

How Twitter's @Reply Rules Expanded Conversations, Use

Twitter's relationship with developers and users has been bumpy, to say the least. The users are fiercely loyal about the service, but like Facebook's fans, every little update is first dissected, then railed upon and is typically finally accepted by the community. For all the tumult over client changes, ad inserts, new retweet styles versus old and Web layouts, users have stuck with Twitter without leaving in mass numbers for an alternative. Among the most controversial choices was the company's move to hide tweets aimed at users that you were not mutually following - meaning @reply tweets sent to a third party you weren't already following were simply hidden outright.

While the initial outcry was strong, and continues to get mentioned as decreasing Twitter's potential for serendipity and discoverability for new voices, I have found the value of the tweak has enabled real conversations in the service that would be a challenge otherwise, and by making replies a major part of how I use Twitter, there has been no backlash in my own increased use, if one assumes follower counts are a valuable measure.

TweetStats Shows I Am Tweeting at a Record Pace

My initial usage of Twitter was extremely cautious, as I knew every single 140 character missive was distributed equally to every potential follower, not to mention redistributed to networks aggregating my content. If I wanted to reply to another user and comment on a subject, I was effectively CCing the entire world, who would have to attempt to piece together what I was replying to, and many more would often jump in mid conversation. It was a mess. While, yes, my connections could see new user names they hadn't previously encountered, plucking quality from the real-time stream in this mix of discussions was a challenge - and I didn't want to add to the noise.

Ev in 2009 Under Fire From the Vocal User Base

In May of 2009, Twitter made what they called a "Small Settings Update. Anticipating a response, the post said "Despite this update, you'll still see mentions or references linking to people you don't follow", assuming the users were mentioned mid-tweet. A follow-on post revealed one of the major issues was technical, that Twitter had to make changes due to continuing scale problems. Eventually the company had to do a mea culpa, not just around the issue itself but in terms of how it was communicated. Users were very frustrated, and the "#fixreplies" hashtag dominating most streams. But in the ensuing two years, as the dust has settled, users, myself included, have learned how to leverage the new environment.

Replies In 2011 Make More than 50% of My Tweets

For every user out there who adds a stray character (usually a . or a *) before replies to extend the visibility of the update to the community, there are many more who use the system as it was intended. Now, conversations between users who are not mutually followed don't clutter up the streams, and there's a lot more freedom to reply without creating so much noise you have to be ignored or unfollowed. Meanwhile, if a third user has already elected to follow both of you, they can watch both sides of the conversation, and likely have an interest in the discussion.

TweetStats Shows Who I Reply To Most Often

In the last few months, I gave up on being overly concerned about flooding my stream with @replies. A cursory glance at TweetStats showed @replies had ballooned from single digit percentages of my updates to more than half in 2011, and leading to record quantity of updates, even at times approaching 40 tweets a day - which for me is fairly voluminous. And yet there's been no outcry or massive unfollowing. The numbers aren't accelerating, but we all know the numbers are immaterial and the time for exponential growth is past. But while in the past conversations were practically impossible in Twitter, moving to other platforms, the @reply change made the service a lot more capable to handle deeper exchanges.

While the initial reasons for the @replies change may have been steeped in scalability problems and strained architectures, users have adapted, and helped to morph the network into less of a simple status update repository and link bombing channel to one of real back and forth discussion. It's let me talk privately in public.