It’s Impossible to Follow a Conversation on Twitter

Without major fixes to the product, the platform will never be a place for complex discussions.

Earlier this week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and the tech journalist Kara Swisher conducted a full 90-minute interview entirely on Twitter. The interview was meant to be an old-school “Twitter chat,” and users were instructed to follow along using the hashtag #KaraJack.

It was a disaster. Attempting to follow a public conversation happening on Twitter is “pretty much a mess right now,” Dorsey himself noted at a conference yesterday. The chat was so difficult to parse that Recode futilely attempted to collect Dorsey’s responses into a Twitter Moment. Meanwhile, other users begged the Thread Reader App bot to unroll the thread, to which it replied that it simply could not.

Part of the problem is that #KaraJack didn’t follow any of the standard norms for Twitter chats (essentially long, back-and-forth conversations that unfurl in @ replies on the network). When I worked as a social-media strategist eight years ago, at the height of Twitter chats’ popularity, I conducted more than 100 of them for brands. They were almost all bad, but they were made marginally better by a couple of important protocols. One is to number the questions and replies so that it’s clear what exactly someone is replying to. Another is to space out questions and answers and not talk over each other. #KaraJack did neither. Both Swisher and Dorsey split the original thread and replied to the wrong tweets. Swisher made a typo right at the get-go. But still, following a conversation on Twitter shouldn’t be this hard.

The theoretical benefit of being on Twitter, a broadcast-based open social network, is to talk with other people and follow their conversations, even ones that don’t include you. Somehow, in 2019, the product has degraded to the point where this has become impossible. It’s like running through a public square shouting at people, trying to start a dialogue while getting jostled by a crowd.

The primary issue is threads. Threaded tweets were first introduced back in December 2017 as an easier way for people to make “tweetstorms” cohesive. Twitter has done almost nothing to hone the feature since then.

The most obvious problem with threading is that it assumes Twitter users think linearly. In real life, you may post a 12-part thread only to realize that you need to expand on or clarify just the third tweet. If you reply to that third entry alone, you’ll break the thread, splitting it into two and making it harder for people to find the original. This not only makes complex thoughts difficult to communicate, but it also makes deciphering them almost impossible.

The problems don’t stop there, though. The way Twitter shows replies is also confusing: Users have to click into each tweet in a thread to get the full scope of responses to it. There’s no simple, all-encompassing hub to view both the thread and the conversation happening around it.

The #KaraJack chat would have been a perfect opportunity for Twitter to show off a new hashtag hub or similar feature. The company has invested resources into adding emojis to the end of special hashtags, but it still hasn’t harnessed hashtags’ real power: collecting conversation. (Twitter declined to comment.)

When users click the #KaraJack hashtag, for instance, they should be presented with a chronological, easy-to-follow feed of Swisher and Dorsey’s conversation and the response tweets to it. Instead, Twitter offers a messy, algorithmic timeline full of random tweets, mostly from other people. Since both Swisher and Dorsey failed to include the #KaraJack tag in some of their tweets, those tweets are nowhere to be found. This is a missed opportunity: Twitter should have a way for users to hashtag an entire thread. Part of Swisher’s and Dorsey’s hashtag negligence could have been due to character-count pressures, since hashtags still inexplicably count toward the limit on each tweet. This makes users less likely to categorize their own content via hashtags; the company’s CEO just proved as much firsthand.

Though Twitter prides itself on being an open social network, the #KaraJack interview proves its desperate need for more walled-off spaces. Currently Twitter offers users only two core privacy options: You can set your entire profile and tweets to public or private. But users who choose to remain private should have the ability to make their voices heard in public conversations. Twitter could offer privacy restrictions on individual units of content, as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and just about every other modern social platform do. Or it could allow users to keep a private profile while tweets with a public hashtag could be open to views, replies, and retweets from other users.

Twitter has another, bigger problem. No one will want to engage in any sort of public discussion on the platform until it recognizes the sheer depth of harassment taking place there. One big takeaway from the #KaraJack conversation was Dorsey’s failure to admit that harassment is an issue. When asked who he admired on Twitter, Dorsey championed Elon Musk, a man who regularly uses the platform to harass critics and baselessly claimed that the man who saved Thai children trapped in a cave was a pedophile. If this denial continues, it will ultimately be the platform’s downfall. Most users don’t want to hop into a public discussion where simply tweeting with a female avatar can be enough to garner an inbox full of rape threats.

One way for Twitter to better moderate a user’s experience would be to create closed “rooms” for Twitter chats, where only approved people could participate. Facebook offers this feature through private groups; Reddit has subreddits, and Discord has rooms. This would help protect those who are participating in a thoughtful way from harassment, and could offer a less chaotic experience for those who are trying to follow along, by segmenting the chat out from their main feeds. It doesn’t matter how many color-coded replies or pop-up profiles Twitter implements if chats are too hard to discover and follow.

Whatever Twitter chooses to do, it must start making changes quickly. The company reported just 126 million daily active users in its most recent earnings—fewer than Snapchat, which has been written off for its slowing growth. As Casey Newton at The Verge recently said, “There are talented product managers inside Twitter who would do more, if they could. But they are often stymied by internal roadblocks that—unlike the collective behavior of hundreds of millions of users—actually are under the CEO’s control.” Dorsey’s disastrous Twitter interview is proof that he needs to spend less time talking and more time focusing on the product.