The Real Reason Twitter Switched to the Heart

Photo: Snowy little heart by Jakob Lawitzki

Last year, Twitter dropped a bomb on its community. A heart-shaped bomb.

Now that everyone has had a bit of time to adjust, it’s the perfect moment to re-explore two important questions:

  1. Why did Twitter do it?
  2. Should they have done it?

Here’s what a Twitter company blog post had to say about the move at the time:

We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.

While this makes sense at first glance, clarity is actually a false distinction here.

Because of the star’s slight ambiguity, yes, there are special ways Twitter users ended up using it. But was the star really so ambiguous as to create a problem?

What’s more, this argument treats clarity as if it were valuable all by itself. As if Twitter users will take a deep breath and think, “Gosh, I’m glad this heart button is so clear”, and that this itself will somehow be better for Twitter as a business.

That’s not the case, and Twitter must have known it. Rather, to be of value, clarity would need to lead somewhere in a practical business sense.

I suspected all along there was an alternate explanation here. As soon as I heard of the Twitter switch, I knew it was about one thing — driving engagement.

Hearts vs Stars in a battle to the death

We’re going to have to consider some visual symbology here for a moment, so stay with me.

A star is something “high” above us. There are lots of stars in existence, which would normally make a thing cheap. But stars are too deeply embedded in the magic of human consciousness to fall prey to such economic logic. The impossibly vast number of stars only serves to increase their impressiveness. At night, the stars reach from horizon to horizon. In every direction.

Standing on a shore, you can’t even say that about the ocean. Make no mistake. Symbolically speaking, a star is awe-inspiring. And anything that awesome must be very, very valuable. You ever wonder why they’re so frequently gold?

By comparison, a heart is downright pedestrian.

They may symbolically contain our feelings — and therefore connect us to one another (dawww) — but a heart beats in every one of us. While the essence of a star is eternity, a heart is bodily. Like a fingernail.

This contrast is also supported by Twitter’s accompanying terminology change from “favorites” to “likes”. Liking something (heart-ing it) is far less of an investment than to deem it among your favorite (starring).

In that way, you can think of the move as an intentional cheapening of a digital, social currency. By making stars into less valuable hearts, Twitter hoped people will spend it more freely.

And how’s that cheapening going? Here’s what Twitter Product SVP Kevin Weil told BuzzFeed about the heart’s performance:

“It’s a change that’s been fantastic for the platform,” said Weil. “We see now 6% more hearts, 6% more likes on Twitter than we saw with favorites.” He also noted that new users tend to engage 9% more with this change.

Yay, engagement! But wait…

The fly in the Twitter’s soup

I’m forced to wonder, is raw engagement really the problem Twitter has?

Speaking on a percentage basis, I have little doubt that Twitter has one of the lowest engagement rates of any social network.

aWriting for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson called Twitter, “media’s chattiest technology”. In that same article, he abysmally describes a successful(?) tweet:

By Friday morning, [my tweet] had about 155,260 impressions. According to the new Tweet activity dashboard, 2.9 percent of those users clicked the image, and 1.1 percent retweeted or favored [sic] it … but just 1 percent clicked on the link to actually read my story. One percent. Even worse, of the 9,017 people who clicked somewhere, anywhere on my message, just one in six of those clicks actually went to The Atlantic website. Quantitatively speaking, my viral tweet had the click-through rate of a digital display ad in East Asia.

Twitter has this problem because it’s is a maelstrom of activity. Even a relatively new user could check into Twitter after a few days and be THOUSANDS of tweets behind, with no hope of ever catching up.

You know what decreases engagement? Two things: Feeling overwhelmed, and feeling as if there’s a lot of other stuff you need to get on to.

Analytical thinking will only take you so far. At the core of both of these feelings is plethora — too much stuff, not too little. Adding the hearts and “increasing engagement” hasn’t actually done anything to change rectify the nature of the Twitter beast. It’s just added one more bit of noise. More “clicking”, more “liking”.

Twitter’s way out

By its nature, successful social media tends to become impacted. But if there were a poster child for the content avalanche, it would have to be Twitter. This is especially troublesome when Twitter has historically done so little to filter the content it serves to users.

I would argue that the relatively scarcity of stars acted as a type of filter. If the heart really is successful in the way Twitter hoped would be, then I’d argue it’s killed (or at least diminished) one of the only meaningful filters on Twitter.

And Twitter needs more and better ways to slice its content. Not less.

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