The Case for &

I use Twitter daily and almost exclusively for my social network needs. I get most of my ‘breaking news’ from Twitter, and keep in touch with friends and colleagues there. I prefer Twitter compared to other social platforms like Facebook or Google+ because a) it’s an easy format to skim through in bite-size chunks and b) there’s not as much insistence from Twitter that I use my real name, provide a ton of personal information about myself. This collapse of the public and the personal spheres of a person’s life is the biggest danger from social networking right now in my opinion, but that’s a topic for a different rant.

The main issue that I have with Twitter in terms of missing functionality is that there is no means to speak to a group privately.

There’s multiple ways to publicly (or semi-publicly) address one or a number of users, but privately you can only talk to one user at a time. But semi-public is not private. There’s a lot of people that use Twitter for, say, arranging meet-ups between friends that are all on Twitter, but there’s no way to do so in private without being driven to other venues for those communications, such as text messaging and (ugh) Facebook.

And this is a problem. I’ve always felt a little strange about the semi-public nature of @-messages when talking with people I know in real life, because if I’m @-messaging with Friend A and Friend B about meeting up later, then Friend C also sees everything I’m posting in the conversation. Not to mention I’ve also given Stranger D a heads-up because he follows Friend A and Friend B. This is not a hypothetical event — I’ve had more than one such conversation interrupted by some random guy that nobody in the conversation has ever met chiming in with his recommendation for a bar to meet at. It would be nice to not have to rely on good social etiquette (online or otherwise) from anonymous people when talking with friends.

The other big shortcoming I run into is engaging in group conversations where you have 3 or 4 or 5 Twitter handles in there — they tend to steamroll as more friends comment — and it cuts down the allotted 140 characters by half or more.

My solution to the above problems would be a private group messaging feature that I’m calling &. Read it as ‘and’, such as &geekpondering. I’m going to discuss a little bit more about the benefits of this feature, some implementation ideas that I have, and I’ll finish off with some of the drawbacks that come to mind.

Users talking privately to multiple people either on an ad-hoc basis or part of a named group and still have most of their 140 characters would expand Twitter’s functionality, and in a very good way. It’s not just for setting up a night on the town. I think the killer use-case on the user side is marketing. Consider, say, a well-known rock band has a private group that they could add their fans to. They could use this group to pre-announce tour dates, post members-only links to unreleased songs, recruit for a street team, host a live Q&A with the band, etc, etc. Only some of this outreach is possible using a private Twitter account, and to my knowledge very few private Twitter accounts are used for this purpose mainly due to the headaches of managing a lot of users.

Since there’s always great ideas that don’t make financial sense for a company to implement, the question needs to be asked- What’s in it for Twitter? And the answer is: more participation and more metadata. I believe group messaging would encourage people to be more active on Twitter, and not just consume- currently Twitter is like a firehose, and it’s up to users to decide how to narrow the firehose to an acceptable signal to noise ratio. Group messaging would allow users to join in on topics that they are interested in.

Twitter tracks all sorts of information now to pass on to their advertisers, like how many people have clicked on a travel section link from New York Times in the last 90 days? How many users in the city of Austin follow Lady Gaga’s Twitter account? etc. Group private messages would provide much more focus on what people read — i.e., which groups they belong to and what information they are most passionate about, i.e., which groups they actively participate in. More participation and more metadata means more profit down the line.

Implementation details:

  • Twitter could make it as simple as having a button to start a private conversation, and a user can either add users to that conversation or it can use the existing users from a public thread. This could be implemented to simply enable group direct messaging, another often called-for feature. But I think the real magic would happen if there were named groups that users could create and maintain for ongoing conversations. Twitter could even create built-in ones that they moderate, like &twitter-politics or &twitter-baseball.
  • Everyone could start off with their twitter handle as a group name — i.e., I’d automagically own the &geekpondering group. Users would have the option of adding all users that currently follow that handle as members of the group or manually adding users to their group, and also set whether they have read-only access or read-write access. If Twitter really wanted to get snazzy, they could allow multiple administrators per group.
  • Members of the group that have write access could simply post to that group by starting a tweet with &geekpondering, and every member of the group would receive that message. Since it’s private, members of the group cannot retweet a group message just as they can’t retweet a DM, and blocked users who are a member of a group along with someone blocking them wouldn’t see any messages from the blocker within that group.
  • The Twitter app and 3rd-Party apps can add neato functionality for ‘starting a new chat’, ‘new group from existing participants’, easy group management support, etc.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll cover some of the possible down-sides:

  • & would become a reserved term like @, but it’s would only activate a private group message when used at the beginning of a tweet, so if people accidentally put a space or add the group name later in the tweet, the tweet would be public. And typing the wrong group name would send that message to the wrong group of people.
  • Once a large number of groups get going, it’ll be tough to remember which groups you belong to, who belongs to that group, what is on topic, what permissions (read/write/admin) you are assigned. This can be solved somewhat with autocompletion that already happens on most clients.
  • Being social on the internet means friction between people, and groups would add an additional layer to that. There’d be administrator turf wars even if there aren’t multiple admins for a group. Even now there’s people in charge of company Twitter accounts that go rogue. Users would get their feelings hurt by not being included in a group, or getting kicked out of one. Additionally, different users have different ideas of what ‘should’ be public and not.
  • On the user side, managing a large number of users might get a little unwieldy. Twitter would have to create strict limitations on how many invites to groups you can submit, because an owner of a popular group is going to get swarms of invite requests from spambots. Twitter or 3rd party clients could include the functionality to mass-add users that have requested admittance, and then admins can manually boot out unruly users when needed.
  • Looking at it from Twitter’s point of view, groups might not be used much by the casual user that Twitter is trying to attract. They’ve also hinted that they are moving  away from punctuation-based tweets. From a technical perspective, groups add a number of complicating factors to Twitter’s setup. It took a very long time and an immense amount of code and hardware for Twitter to stabilize their existing platform, and that’s without having to handle varying group membership and access control lists.

I think this sort of feature would add an extra, missing dimension to Twitter, because it would partition the firehose of tweets that come at people, which in turn would increase engagement and therefore profitability.  Decide for yourself whether you think this would be a good idea, and hit me up on Twitter.