Twitter’s currently ablaze with talk about the recent change to how @replies are handled on twitter. (Actually, as of this writing, it’s ablaze with a shocking number of “RT this if you disagree with Twitter’s decision to hide replies to people you don’t follow. #fixreplies” messages that cause a massive facepalm.)

While I agree with the change (because for most of my multiple use cases, that’s how twitter works best), I feel for the people who didn’t use Twitter this way. Their whole way of looking at the social web has been taken away by the elimination of an application preference. That’s surely upsetting, and I can’t hope to change their minds. But I can try to get them out of their heads and see how the change makes sense for a lot of Twitter scenarios.

I operate a bot, @recomme (which is currently in the shop for maintenance due to another API change that Twitter made with no warning — so my above empathy is real) that feeds on @ replies: send recomme a message, and it tweets back to you, also in the public stream. If you keep your tweet stream private, you must follow @recomme, and it must (auto-)follow you back. The same follow requirements happen if you want to send private messages and receive them back.

This seemed like a reasonable model when I designed it because to me, the sensible way of managing replies was to see only replies to those people you follow and have asserted that you found interesting. @recomme has nearly 4000 followers now. For those people who have kept their settings on receiving replies to people they’re not following, that’s a lot of eyeballs to reach, especially when anybody can trigger a message from the bot. Fortunately, this has not been noticeably abused by any of the thousands of users. Unfortunately, because of the existence of the all-replies setting, the bot receives nowhere near the number of tweets you would expect from the number of users, I suspect because the social cost of sending tweets to and from the bot are big.

Now, if Twitter stays with hiding replies to people you don’t follow, then my vision of an “emergent social network” can happen. People can happily tweet the bot, knowing that people who don’t care about music recommendations won’t see those tweets or those replies. The people who do care about you and music recommendations do see those tweets, and I think that’s a nifty way of opening conversations.

For my own tweets, I struggle with keeping the number of people I follow down, and I have a tough time refusing to read tweets. The “@ replies to people I’m following” setting was an effective filter. Actually, there’s a core of twitter users who I know in real life, and I am more keen on seeing all their tweets. (And did so with a secondary account that saw all replies.)

But the real reason why I’m in favor of the recent change is because of new users. Techcrunch actually showed some insight after their typically incendiary headline:

Before tonight I never paid much attention to this train of thought - after all, on Twitter, I can just follow the people I care about and ignore those I don’t. But it’s clear that Twitter is concerned with appealing to a more mainstream audience, and if that takes making a very simple service even more simple, then by golly, that’s what they’re going to do.

Well, yes. Exactly. My pride as an early adopter is far outweighed by the desire to have more close friends and family come to Twitter.

What does a new user see after adding a few friends and “recommended users“? Some tweets, but a lot of decontextualized half-conversations. This is confusing and off-putting. I feel guilty some days when I use Twitter as an open IM/IRC channel, having long threads of conversation. For those who follow all of my tweets, I must seem incredibly boring, geeky, trivial and somewhat profane. That’s accurate, but it’s not what I like to remind people.

I think that seeing this chatty, focused, decontextualized side of Twitter is not a very gentle introduction for newcomers. It might be useful for comfortable users who have been around for a while but follow dozens of people (or for very prolific users who skim or otherwise filter their tweet stream but don’t pay particular attention to any users in particular). But for introducing users to Twitter while fighting concerns that it is “trivial,” it’s a pretty important step to take.

Some ideas that were thrown at me were improving the experience:

I would prefer it on a per-user basis. So I could say ignore @replies from @stephenfry, but get them from @daagaak.
It would be nice for API users, bots, etc to be able to specify if a tweet should act like that. I just dislike the list of discovery.

…in other words, make the control more fine-grained, whether it be push or pull. Well, changing the granularity would be welcome from my selfish point of view. I could zoom in on some users, and not on others. I can see the appeal of the push-control, too. I would have welcomed making @recomme more private, if that had been an option.

But the truth is, that’s all too fiddly. It makes a degree of sense to a “power user” like me, but from a user standpoint, it’s a disaster. Too many things to control. The point of the change was to simplify a hard to understand option, something that I stand behind on principle.

On the other hand, Anne said, “Never take options away from a user.” Those are also wise words. My gut instinct to make as many people happy as possible would be to grandfather in the feature: keep the option for those who have changed from the default, make it disappear for all others. This creates two tiers of users, though, which is untenable in the long term, especially from the social aspect: these exceptional users have a view on Twitter that is fundamentally different from others, and are likely to use it differently. As such, I think the feature should be phased out. Leave it to clients to support an expanded view of the greater twitterverse.

There’s a Twitter truism that’s been floating around: “Anyone who tells you how Twitter should be used is wrong.” I’ve tried not to fall afoul of that here, but it’s a fine line.