The Thin Blue Line

A risky UX move by Twitter.

Update: This post was initially published on 8.30.13.

After sharing it here and with @Buster and @Mkruz, within 24 hours, I no longer had the picture-previews cluttering my Twitter stream.

As a result, I realize now that my primary UX complaint was more about the picture previews than the “thin blue line” itself.

After 48 hours of returning to a more normal text-rich Twitter experience, supplemented with a thin-blue line helping to highlight comments and conversations, I am enjoying Twitter as much as ever.

This feature now seems like a nice supplement to the main service, much like the ability to add extra lines within tweets, which is fairly new and which most people (myself included) use sparingly.

Most tweets are sources of new information, but it is nice to have the blue line as a subtle highlight to help capture conversations and not be forced to use additional clicks to dive into them.

I am leaving the below commentary as is to highlight my previous concerns, but I would also like to wholeheartedly thank the Twitter team for being responsive to the concerns expressed below.

It might be pure coincidence, but as an avid user of Twitter, it makes me feel even more supportive of the service to know that even today they listen and adjust according to feedback and data from their users.

Now back to Tweeting!

Below is the original post.

Two days ago Twitter rolled out a new change to their iOS app that makes in-stream conversations more visual. There is now a thin blue line connecting people when they interact (whether through @replies, Re-tweets, or otherwise).

More here on the Twitter blog via @buster:

Today we’re updating our iPhone and Android apps, as well as, to make it easier to discover and follow conversations in your home timeline. From buzz about the VMAs to debates around upcoming football games, people come to Twitter to take part in these real-time, global, public conversations.

As a habitual twitter user (day and night — note the time in the image above), this seems like one of the biggest changes we have seen in the 6 years I have used and loved the service.

At the same time, Twitter appears to be experimenting (or maybe this is official, I can’t tell) with in-stream previews for things like YouTube, which you can see in the picture above.

While in some ways this is pretty cool (check out that video of the guy being pranked by T-rex mentioned by @jamesallworth if you haven’t).

On the other hand, it completely changes the Twitter UX in iOS.

The upside of these changes seem to be a more visually engaging experience that draws you in (and likely increases click-through for videos like the above). I am sure this helps the business model, but it also makes the experience more rich.

It can be engaging and pleasant to see photos while scrolling through your tweets.

And the ability to visually connect tweets without too much effort reduces the clicks we need to follow conversations.

However, the downside of these changes is at least two-fold:

First, as a simple matter of real-estate, when you have a giant image or a string of conversations connected in your screen, you see less tweets on the screen.

Second, while the images do increase engagement in a good way at times, they also make it so that you slow down your scrolling when they catch your eye.

This is more subtle, but as rapid-scroller, I have noticed a change.

(I wish that the guys at Twitter would publicize this statistic, but my hunch is that scroll speeds have slowed following these changes).

While in some ways this might be good because it increases engagement with tweets you do see, if you follow a lot of people like I do (I’m at 888), it much less likely that you will see any one tweet.

Both of these downsides: less tweets per screen and slower scrolling, mean that we get less data per time on Twitter.

Part of the reason I love Twitter so much is that it is a never-ending and rapid-fire source of self-filtered data coupled with an ability to interact with and learn from so many people.

These changes combined with in-stream promoted tweets take away that power and make Twitter more like Facebook, which, as we all know, does not allow us to customize our feed in any meaningful way.

Facebook is basically a picture-sharing site. Which is fun, but it is very different than Twitter.

People like the folks at Mashable and others have been quick to capitalize on the in-stream image trend.

As well they should — as an innovator in blogging, Mashable has won by staying on top of the latest and greatest ways to get our attention.

However, the above image does not look like the Twitter I have grown to love over the years.

This is twitter:

Twitter is a stream of thoughts on subjects as varied from “Digital detox” (hmm…) to “Migrant workers” to “Hermes” to “Python” to a “coalition of the willing” all at once.

Scrolling through a melange of ideas like this shared by a self-curated group of people and organizations from all over the world is what makes Twitter the engaging and powerful service that it is.

I understand the need for companies, especially technology companies, to continue to push the envelope and innovate, and I applaud Twitter for taking risks like this.

But I hope that they are closely monitoring statistics like the user-scrolling one and others NOT just as a measure of engagement that means higher CPMs or CPCs to make the business case with advertisers.

I hope they also realize that when we slow down our scrolls it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

If not, this change might open the door for someone to build something new that captures the magic that Twitter taught us through our days and nights by letting us connect, share, and filter information with a network of people spanning the globe like never before.