Twitter may describe itself as the town square, but that doesn’t mean you have to talk to everyone walking past your seat at the cafe. Today, to increase the amount of “meaningful conversations” that take place on Twitter, and to help people weed out abuse and spam in their replies, the company announced that it is rolling out a new feature where users can limit who replies to their Tweets.
After a brief run in beta, the feature is rolling out globally starting today to users of the iOS and Android apps, as well as twitter.com, Suzanne Xie noted in a blog post announcing the feature. TweetDeck is not yet supported, Twitter tells me.
A small globe icon will start to appear at the bottom of your tweet, and if you do nothing, everyone will still be able to reply — this is the default option. Or, you can tap it and limit replies just to those who follow you; or just to those who you tag in the tweet itself.
And, if you pick the third of these and tag no one, it’s also a way to broadcast a tweet or a thread of tweets with no replies at all. (This all applies to “open” accounts; those that have locked who can view their tweets are limited by default; and it doesn’t seem to replace the option to hide replies, which Twitter launched last year. We asked and Twitter declined to make any update or statement on the “hide replies” functionality.)
Those who can’t reply will get a greyed-out icon, but they can still view, retweet, retweet with comment and “like” the tweets.
The basic idea behind limiting replies is more control. Specifically, setting parameters around those who can reply can help the original poster curtail abusive or trolling replies, or to limit replies to keep the conversation on track. Both can be especially critical in a number of use cases common on Twitter. Those tweeting about a sensitive issue or a political topic are classic scenarios that bring out trolls. And those trying to broadcast a conversation with a specific group (or indeed in a monologue) with the intention of making that conversation publicly viewable can now do it without interruption.
“Sometimes people are more comfortable talking about what’s happening when they can choose who can reply,” Xie wrote. “We’ve seen people use these settings to have conversations that weren’t really possible before. Starting today, everyone will be able to use these settings so unwanted replies don’t get in the way of meaningful conversations.”
Xie said that beta test feedback has been positive. Those using the feature said they felt more comfortable and protected from spam and abuse, and the feature is getting used: It found that those who have submitted abuse reports and had access to the new limit reply tool were three times more likely to use the settings.
It seems that limiting replies is more of a complement to, not a replacement for, muting and blocking: 60% of those using the limit replies feature weren’t already muting and blocking other users. Xie doesn’t mention how it is used alongside another spam-controlling feature Twitter launched last year, hiding replies.
People who are limited from replying directly can still retweet with a comment, and thus still inject whatever they want to say. But Xie noted that “these settings prevented an average of three potentially abusive replies while only adding one potentially abusive retweet with comment,” adding that there was no uptick in unwanted direct messages, either.
The feature getting announced today has been a while in the making, both from a product and even longer from an idealogical point of view.
The concept for limiting replies was first announced back at January at CES, when Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s VP of Product said that the primary motivation [for the feature] was control. “We want to build on the theme of authors getting more control and we’ve thought … that there are many analogs of how people have communications in life,” he said at the time.
The feature then formally started to roll out in a limited test in May, and the version that is getting turned on today looks just like that. (In fact, the screen shots are largely exactly the same, except with a more recent date on the tweets, and an tweak to make it clearer when your replies are more limited.)
But the bigger thinking behind the new feature stretches back earlier than this year.
Twitter has long (as in years now) been working on creating better ways to channel its open-ended social platform to keep it from getting exploited and abused.
The issue stems from the platform’s basic DNA: Twitter was built around the idea of anyone being able to reply to anyone else, regardless of whether two users follow each other, or whether someone wants to hear a certain response. The issue, some argue, is that Twitter has dragged its feet because the open-ended aspect is actually in Twitter’s best business interest, since it encourages more engagement and use. (For a recent example of that argument pertaining specifically to cancel culture conversations, see here.)
Admittedly, it can be one of the more empowering feelings you can have on this big internet of ours, to be able to reply to someone on Twitter when you have an opinion on something, or just a question. Never mind that the reply may never come, or come from an army of trolls. And indeed, that open-ended aspect hasn’t always played out as a positive every time.
People, some of whom might be vulnerable or going through difficult situations, can be singled out for negative responses by other users, leading some of them to leave Twitter altogether, sometimes in very high-profile incidents. At a time when social media has become ever more influential and is being criticized by many asking whether it is fair enough, responsible enough and responsive enough in relation to the (incendiary and other) content that bounces around its playing fields, it has been a bad look for Twitter, and it’s been trying for years now to fix it.
I’m guessing that some will decry the move to limit replies as a curtailing of free speech and free expression, that it might give a stronger voice to those who are actually using Twitter to disseminate abusive information themselves, by potentially limiting how people can respond.
There are a couple of counter arguments, though. One is that people can still see and retweet what someone says, one way of responding. A retweet with comment can still be pretty powerful: Sometimes these tweets can go viral and be seen even more than the original tweets themselves.
Xie noted that people will be able to see when replies have been limited, and that Twitter is working on ways of making that more obvious. That might well include pointing people to further information elsewhere. And the new timeline containing “Retweets with Comments” launched in May gets four times more visits on Tweets using these settings, Xie said.
There have, in fact, been a number of tweaks to reduce the amount of noise on the platform: Last year Twitter turned on the ability to hide replies, and over the years Twitter has improved the process for reporting harassment (including a number of updates and tests around harmful language), blocking people (although it seems this has some people contesting it) and muting people.
And it’s worth pointing out that Twitter has been making a lot of efforts to better detect and help users report original tweets that are abusive, discriminatory, contain fake news and the rest.
That might be the most important point here. This is a net positive for the platform, but still just one step in a long journey to work on improving the climate on Twitter overall.