Twitter Reverses The Flow Of Its Timeline In Effort To Humanize It For Newbies

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Twitter just flipped the format of its timeline with a new conversation view. The full timeline will still show in the traditional ‘newest stuff at the top’ view, but now there are linked conversations which display tweets in an easier-to-understand format.

At first glance, this might seem like a simple update that links related tweets together with a thin blue line and a fancy expandable box. But the reasons for this go deeper than just making it easier to read. It’s also making it feel more human and less Twitter.

The new view is rolling out on Twitter.com, as well as in the iPhone and Android apps and features an ‘old’ tweet first, with newer replies to it in order afterwards.

Here’s an example of an expanded conversation in a timeline (only a couple of the replies are visible until you spread them out):

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 12.13.55 PM

Note the timestamps along the side. Instead of the traditional ‘countdown’ as you go up, the tweets actually get older, not newer. This is a reversal of the way that Twitter has worked before. And, at least to my eye, it’s much easier to follow conversations when you’re reading them chronologically from the oldest tweet through replies that add to the discussion.

From the beginning, Twitter has had its own system of communication. Third-party developers helped define the conventions like the @ symbol, the RT and more, but that system has grown increasingly opaque to new users of the service. As with any network, the conventions grow organically to include in-jokes, little nooks of oddness and big swaths of unintelligible conversation.

Twitter had backed itself right into a similar situation by letting the audience define those conventions for so long. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, Twitter wouldn’t be half of what it is if those early enthusiasts hadn’t stretched and pulled the SMS messenger into its current shape. But, if Twitter wants to execute on its plan of embracing media companies and new users that will actually interact and engage, it now needs to make things simpler and more coherent.

Recently, at the D11 conference, CEO Dick Costolo indicated that Twitter need to address this communication issue:

As far as what Costolo says that Twitter is missing, he says “simplicity”. ”Bridging the gap between the awareness of what Twitter is and…going in and understanding what it is right away.”

That gap is what happens when you have people who are deeply invested in a platform, and others who find the complex jargon and mechanics of Twitter confusing. Costolo specifically called out the ‘period before a user name’ behavior when you want a reply to be seen by all as confusing. “Because of the 140 character constraint, users have created this remarkable language for communication,” he says.

“Public real-time conversational distributed” is where Twitter wants to ‘enhance its abilities’. That’s where Costolo says that they’re spending almost all of their time. This is one of the reasons that Costolo says that they haven’t put a lot of time into private group chat.

Instead of private group chat, we now have ‘public group chat’.

That being said — the conversation view is bound to cause some complaints among long-time users. There’s a bit of jumping around involved with conversations expanding and contracting. When tweets are replied to, the conversation also gets pushed upwards in your timeline, moving whole bunches of tweets at once.

There’s also the fact that the conversations, while making linked tweets easier to read, arguably make the timeline itself harder to read. Twitter is emphasizing atomic units of conversation over a ‘big stream of sayings’. For better or for worse.

As a side note, when do you think Twitter will remove handles from its feed altogether, relying on the name field alone? That will make it even more ‘human’ and could free up a few more characters if they move the handle to a ‘metadata’ field.

There’s also an interesting side effect to conversations in that you’ll only see people who you follow in a ‘collapsed’ view, but when you expand it you’re going to see the whole shebang, including new users that are unfamiliar to you.

That has the potential to raise some eyebrows when it comes to newbies seeing ‘strange’ people in their feed, but the tradeoffs could be worth it. Remember: Twitter is always looking for ways to encourage users to follow new people. More than almost any other network, you only get out of Twitter what you ‘follow’ into it.

If you happen to tap into a conversation now, and see a new user with a clever reply to one of the folks you follow, you might very well decide to follow them. That’s a clever little bonus to this new view.

The new conversation view isn’t just about making it easier to read connected stuff though, it’s also about taking advantage of the unique nature of Twitter. This harkens back to the ‘Town Hall’ jargon Twitter seems to be enamored with lately. These aren’t just linked conversations, they’re linked conversations that are happening in real-time. That’s something that no other network currently has going for it at such a scale and in public.

There is a ton of stuff going on in the messenger space, with WhatsApp garnering hundreds of millions of users, Instagram tweaking its platform to be ‘messenger’ friendly and Facebook surfacing messaging features in a big way. But Twitter might actually scoop them all by making itself more welcoming to coherent, readable conversations. (And it also helps explain why Twitter wanted control of its basic experience so badly that it cut third-party developers off at the knees.)

At least, that’s what it’s likely hoping, or it wouldn’t have changed the fundamental building blocks of the service in such a major way today. The timeline is no longer immutable. It’s been bent and will continue to be bent in the service of Twitter’s grand plan. Who knows what it might look like soon enough.

Image Credit: John Verive /CC Flickr