The Two Really Useful Features Twitter Added Without Telling Anyone

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Twitter became substantially more useful over the past couple of months, courtesy of two small changes to the way the service's real-time search works. Neither tweak was announced, which is a shame because they might be the best things the service has done since it gained traction a few years ago. 

First, now, when you search for something like "Inception" or "Elena Kagan," the top three search results are calculated by the number of retweets that comment has received. Functionally, this means that the funniest, most relevant, or interesting tweets get surfaced. (See above.) Before, the real time search function used to bring up just the most recent tweets, which were often random or boring.

Second, because of the character limitations on Twitter, nearly everyone uses URL shorteners to post links. Some time in May, Twitter started peeking into those links. What that means is if you search "theatlantic.com," anybody linking to this site will appear, even if they use a URL shortener. For media websites, that's an incredibly useful bit of functionality because we can capture a larger percentage of the discussion around our posts. (See below.)

Though both changes were rolled out weeks ago, you may not have noticed them if you mostly use Twitter through a client like Tweetdeck and don't find yourself at Twitter.com very often. Perhaps, after years of playing catch up with user growth, Twitter's engineers are finally getting around to implementing useful and new features. (Or so we can hope -- when I went to tweet this story, I (of course!) got a fail whale.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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