The twitter-verse exploded early last week when reports spread of Twitter experimenting with the removal its @-replies and hashtags from the popular online service.
It all began when BuzzFeed reported that Vivian Schiller, head of news @Twitter, gave a speech at the Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange event in Denver where she supposedly called the hashtags and @-replies “arcane.”
Schiller tried to downplay the story, but when asked for comment she responded “There’s a lot of creative thinking going on around how to make Twitter more and more intuitive. Watch this space.”
The move would be an attempt by Twitter to curb some of its older “scaffolding” and in essence lower the language and knowledge barriers that many new users face.
This isn’t the first time that Twitter has gotten rid of one of its older features. The company did away with the manual re-tweet (RT), where you physically had to insert the RT into a tweet, and instead repurposed it directly into the site architecture. This change, while decried by many long-term users at first, has become essential to the ephemeral nature of Twitter. It allows information to spread like digital wildfire across the Internet.
Further reporting revealed that Twitter was experimenting with removing the @-replies in the alpha phase of its Android app. But Schiller’s quote and apparent hints from company CEO, Dick Costolo, seem to suggest that Twitter is looking to change some part of the site. But the question remains — how would this change affect Twitter?
For starters, this would eliminate some of the clutter on the site. In a post-IPO world, Twitter is trying to sustain and grow its user base. Since reaching its $30-million mark, growth of the site has been slow, especially in comparison to Facebook. By removing some of the older, more confusing features Twitter becomes more user-friendly to the public.
However, herein lies a fundamental challenge for Twitter. Until now, the only way to connect with someone’s Twitter profile is through the @-reply function. Otherwise, any heartfelt tweets you send to Beyoncé about how much you love “Drunk In Love” simply get lost in the noise. This is the same issue with hashtags. The only way to connect to a topic, trending or otherwise, is through the use of hashtags. While the @-reply function may soon be nearing its swan song, hashtags are ubiquitous to Twitter and have been adopted by Facebook and Google+. Furthermore, hashtags also appear on almost every advertising campaign, and even grace the corners of TV channels.
While Twitter may be trying to change some of its more quirky features in order to drum up more users and improve its faltering attempts to monetize, it still faces it’s greatest hurtle yet: retaining its identity while removing original features. Removing its defining features could make Twitter look a lot less like Twitter and more like something else.
What that site will look like and how it will affect our digital lives is unknown at this point. Like Schiller said, we just have to “Watch this space.”
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