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May 14, 2009

Watching Twitter’s #Fixreplies Firestorm

What a fun morning I’m having on Twitter search, looking for tweets containing the hashtag #fixreplies. Oops, wait a minute … since I logged onto the site, a minute and a half ago, 230 more replies have come in with that hashtag. Oops, make that 276. Now make that 326.

So what is everyone all tied up in their underwear about? The settings change that Twitter (415 tweets as of now) announced on its blog yesterday, saying that people would no longer see @replies (453) of people they don’t follow. This has caused the first Facebook-style Twitter revolt, as users (489) have poured onto the service to complain. The main complaint about the change is in that without this option, (531), users lose an important resource that tells them who might be interesting to follow, and they’re mad (605). (OK, I’ll stop with that meme, but you get the drift. Smoke is coming out of Twitter’s servers right about now.)

According to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Twitter enacted the change because, “based on usage patterns and feedback, we’ve learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow — it’s a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today’s update removes this undesirable and confusing option.”

What we’re witnessing here is, once again, that it’s going to become nigh impossible for any of the popular social nets to make changes without involving users first. If you take a close look at Stone’s statement above, what you see is actually a fairly old media response, one assuming that the owner of the media property, in this case, Twitter, knows best:¬† “receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow in your timeline is undesirable.” You can just hear the Twitterati saying, “Undesirable to whom?”

The headline¬† for Stone’s statement in the same vein. Reading “Small Settings Update,” it assumes that users will also view this as small — but apparently, it’s big (OK, now we’re at 1,390 new #fixreplies tweets.)

So what are social nets to do? Put everything to a vote? Not always practical, although Facebook was right to do it with its terms of service, which truly was a big change. So, are they to pack their services with so many potential options that traveling through “settings” for any one of them is a day-long excursion? Also not practical. What they do have to do is float changes with users before they make them, and then gauge the volume of the outcry. Something tells me that they would get a more reasoned approach by communicating potential changes before they happen, rather than dealing with the firestorm that inevitably erupts when users feel that something some of them valued has been snatched from them in the night.

In the current situation, Twitter appears to be weighing the outpouring of feedback, which is good. As @adbroad points out, co-founder Evan Williams tweeted the following 10 hours ago: “Reading people’s thoughts on the replies issue. We’re considering alternatives. Thanks for your feedback.”

But for now, the firestorm is raging, out of control (3,431).

Catharine P. Taylor has been covering digital media and advertising for almost 15 years. She currently writes daily about advertising on her blog, You can reach her via email at, follow her on Twitter at cpealet, or friend her on Facebook at Catharine P. Taylor. (mediapost)