Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Twitter encourages public direct messages

One of the earlier conventions to emerge among Twitter-ers is the use of @username to reply publicly to a particular user.

The folks at Twitter (smart people that they are) noticed this practice very early on, and have made it an official part of the lingo, even going so far as to devote a help page to describe the use of @username.

At least three features have been rolled out to the Twitter web interface (two unveiled only this week) to take advantage of this @username convention, making it obvious that Twitter as a site encourages the use of public direct messages.

These three features are (in order of appearance):

  • the "In Reply To" hyperlink
  • hyperlinked @usernames in tweet texts
  • the Replies tab on the Twitter home page
"In Reply To" Hyperlinks

The "In reply to" hyperlink is well documented in the @username Twitter help page.

Twitter assumes that your @username message is a response to the most recent tweet from a friend, so it provides a handy little hyperlink to your friend's latest tweet at the end of your own message.

In the example below, you can see the hyperlink at the end of the tweet that reads "in reply to JasonCalacanis."

Twitter has noticed that Dave addressed his message to Jason, and provided a link to Jason's most recent tweet for our convenience.

The feature works well for the most part, although I must say I've had some perplexing moments following the "In reply to" link.

Since Twitter does not appear to analyze the text of our messages, there are instances when the "in reply to" link points to the wrong tweet. This mis-linking usually occurs when I reply to Twitter-ers who post frequently or when I've been offline for a while and I'm responding to a much older tweet. By the time my @username message is sent, my friend has already posted newer tweets, and the "in reply to" hyperlink points to the newer (and off-topic) tweet instead.

Hyperlinked @usernames in tweet texts

One of the newer features rolled out this week on the Twitter web interface is the use of hyperlinks in tweets that contain @usernames.

This is also illustrated in the tweet sent by Dave Winer (which I'm including again below for reader convenience). Note how "jasoncalacanis" is hyperlinked in the text of the tweet after the @ sign. Clicking on that link will take you to Jason's Twitter profile page, where you can see his replies.

Replies tab on the Twitter Home Page

The third and perhaps most powerful Twitter web feature that builds on the @username convention is the new Replies Tab that's found on each Twitter user's homepage. This new tab was introduced within the last 24 hours.

On the Replies Tab, you will find all public direct messages addressed to you, conveniently collected in one convenient location.

Folks who have had to rely on Twittersearch, Twitterment, or Twitterverse to find such messages will certainly rejoice once they see this feature. I'm sure Jason Calacanis in particular will be happy, if these two tweets are any indication.

Reducing the Imbalance in Twitter

Within minutes of noticing the Replies Tab, Twitter user Cathleen Rittereiser sent this tweet, which IMHO shows just how powerful this latest feature is:

Her tweet immediately brought to mind my earlier frustration with one-sided conversations in Twitter, as well as Dave Winer's subsequent observation that there is an imbalance in Twitter.

It is immediately apparent that the new Replies Tab significantly reduces this imbalance, since anyone can now pretty much reach a non-follower, provided the latter makes the effort to regularly check their Replies page.

It will be interesting to see what impact this new feature will have on the still-evolving Twitter community and culture.


Update: After posting this, I thought of checking the Twitter Blog for news, and unsurprisingly, Biz has updates on the @username feature.

Update 2: I hope the Replies page will soon have its own RSS feed. It would be perfect for people who are not inclined to visit the Twitter website on a regular basis.

Update 3: Replies page now has RSS.