Twitter is a great service for reading the news. It’s not so great for interacting with other people.
The most obvious problem is that Twitter interactions can be toxic. Like the internet at large, Twitter is full of mean, unfriendly, and unsavory characters. Having a conversation with them on Twitter is not often fun, and entire memes have been created to describe the experience of a conversation that spirals out of control.
The second problem has to do with Twitter’s product: It can be too hard to use. Following and participating in a public Twitter conversation can be confusing. As more and more people chime in, a single tweet can spawn dozens of conversation threads, each with a different set of users. It’s easy to lose track of who you’re talking to or what you’re talking about.
So Twitter wants to fix that, and it’s hoping to do so in the most Twitter way possible: by asking the public for help. Twitter is a public everyone-has-an-opinion kind of service. Twitter hopes to use that to its advantage.
The company announced last week that a few thousand Twitter users will soon get access to a special app with special features, and the company will monitor how those features hurt or improve user interactions.
The special app and features will be public, so even those who aren’t in the beta can see what Twitter is testing and chime in online if they want.
“What we don’t want to do is work on this in a black box for some time and then do some major unveil and hope everyone loves it,” said Sara Haider, a product director at Twitter who’s running the beta, in an interview with Recode. “What we do want to do is bring people in as early as possible, which is what we’re doing.”
To fix the issue, Twitter wants to try a number of things, like different colors to help you follow different threads, or indentations to help organize replies. The company is also testing a “status” update so you can let people know where you are or what you’re doing in the moment, reminiscent of the old internet chatroom days.
That’s intentional. Haider said last week that Twitter wants conversations to feel like more traditional chat services, like AOL Instant Messenger. “Making it read more like a thread, more like chat,” she said about the effort. “How do we bring those kinds of elements into big Twitter conversations?”
Results from beta program, which will roll out in the coming weeks, could dictate the company’s future. Twitter has long billed itself as a “global town square,” the central hub on the internet where people can come to discuss the topics of the day. But product issues and problems with user safety and harassment have meant that the town square Twitter created often feels like it was built on the wrong side of town.
The beta could change that, and also raises some interesting questions.
Will this actually improve the health of Twitter conversations?
Twitter has said that improving the “health” of the service is the top priority at the company. It’s even working with outside researchers to try and measure the health of online conversations, a different effort though clearly related. Twitter’s health efforts are so important, in fact, the company claims the resources that they’re taking could hurt other parts of Twitter’s business.
But while these beta features may change how people communicate, it’s unclear if it’ll have any impact on what they communicate. Most of the updates seem to encourage more conversation, not necessarily healthier conversation.
Haider argues it will do both. You can’t have a productive, healthy conversation with someone if you don’t know who you are even replying to, she said.
But the more likely scenario seems to be that these new features could help improve Twitter’s algorithms — the software that determines what conversations appear near the top of a thread and which ones get buried. If it’s easier to communicate with people, then there should theoretically be more interactions, which gives Twitter more data to improve those software programs. Haider says the company will be studying how these product changes influence key metrics the company uses to measure healthy conversations, like follows, blocks and “Likes.” “Are the changes that we’re making pushing things in one direction or another?” she asked. Twitter will be watching.
Is a public beta the best way to fix this problem?
Most tech companies tweak their products behind closed doors, then come out and update them whether people like them or not. Sometimes this works, like Facebook’s News Feed. Sometimes it doesn’t, like Snapchat’s recent redesign. Apple’s Steve Jobs was credited with this quote: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That reflects how a lot of consumer technology companies operate.
Twitter is taking a different approach by tweaking and iterating its product in public, especially considering this is a service where users are encouraged to voice their opinion and provide feedback. It’s democratic, sure, and it’s possible the feedback will give Twitter ideas it never would have considered otherwise. But the risk, of course, is that too many opinions could make it hard to get anything done, a problem Twitter has faced in year’s past. It also provides the company with some cloud cover: It’s harder for users to complain if they have a voice in the changes.
Is Twitter’s problem fixable? We’ll all be watching. And commenting.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.