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Why Twitter is in an uproar about the latest change to Twitter

Thurgood Marshall College Fund 28th Annual Awards Gala
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Twitter just rolled out one of the most important changes the social networking site has ever made to its core product: It is removing usernames from reply tweets, instead showing them outside the body of the tweet.

That’s a change from the old system, where replying to a tweet required starting your reply with the recipient’s username. Under the new system, these usernames won’t count against the 140-character limit.

Anytime a major social media platform makes even minor changes, it generates consternation. The big concern this time is that it will make it easier for users to spam a large number of other users at once — a problem referred to as a Twitter canoe. But the change is also a big step toward making Twitter conversations less cluttered and more understandable.

Twitter's reply system has always been a bit of a hack

The way conversations work on Twitter has long been one of the platform's most confusing features.

It’s a system that evolved over time. In the beginning, Twitter didn't have a concept of replies. Every one of your tweets showed up in the timelines of everyone who followed you.

Over time, a social convention developed that starting a tweet with a username signaled that you were replying to someone. This created clutter in people's timelines — following only one person in a conversation was like listening to one side of a telephone call. So in 2009 Twitter tried to help users by hiding tweets from your timeline if they started with a username you weren't following.

Even after Twitter did this, the conversational experience was far from ideal. As you followed more people, multiple conversations would get jumbled in your timeline and it became harder to follow any one discussion.

So in 2013, Twitter made replies a native feature of tweets. It started keeping track of which tweets were replies to which other tweets, allowing the platform to show users entire conversation threads instead of just individual tweets.

But after this change, a reply still had to start with the username of the person or people being addressed to appear as part of the conversation. These usernames counted against Twitter 140-character limit, so the more people who were included in a conversation, the less room there was for the contents of each tweet.

The obvious next step, which Twitter announced last year and put into practice today, is to take these usernames — which are analogous to the “to” field of an email — out of the body of the tweet entirely. Instead, these usernames will be treated as metadata about the tweet, just like a tweet’s date and location. That creates a less cluttered experience and allows users to devote the full 140 characters of a reply to the substance of the tweet.

The big downside: larger Twitter canoes

Mostly, it seems counterproductive to count reply-to usernames against a tweet’s character count. But it did have one important upside: It was an effective check on problem of Twitter canoes — situations where two or more people hijack one of your tweets to start a long Twitter argument, flooding your mentions tab with tweets you don't care about.

Until today, this kind of thing was constrained by the fact that usernames are counted against the 140-character limit, so people had an incentive to remove nonessential parties from the thread to give them more characters to argue with. But now that limit has been removed, creating the possibility that up to 50 people can get dragged into long-running arguments.

One solution to this problem: Twitter has added a thread-specific mute button, allowing you to block conversations you don’t care about from showing up in your “mentions” tab. But it remains to be seen if this will be enough to keep chaos at bay. If the Twitter canoe problem gets worse, Twitter might have to experiment with new ways to save people from being dragged into conversations against their will. An obvious solution would be to lower the current 50-person limit to something more reasonable, like 10.