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Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It's a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.
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(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

In November of 2012, one month shy of two full years as Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo gave a speech at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Costolo, who graduated from the university in 1985 with a degree in computer science, spoke for almost an hour about Twitter’s role in public discourse, a role he explained through historical analogy. “The Greek Agora,” he said, “was this meeting place or marketplace in ancient Greece where, you know, after dinner people would get together to debate and have dialogue.”

It’s “how information was exchanged and how news passed around the community and how political discourse happened.” The agora, Costolo argued, was “multidirectional,” “unfiltered,” and “not interpreted.” In the Agora: “You were hearing what people were talking about right there with each other. The conversation was happening right now, it wasn't recorded or showed later to people.”

“Along comes Twitter,” Costolo said, “and Twitter reinvents the Agora.”

Even though the service is text-based, Twitter’s 140-character limit produces tweets that often sound like speech. Follow a few people you already know and it feels like chatting in your living room with friends, but follow those friends, a few brands, the president, the New York Times, NPR, Miley Cyrus, Buzz Aldrin, some television shows, your favorite cafe and restaurant, and you’ve created the agora that Costolo describes.

Because Twitter is a digital public square and not a literal one, the population is larger, and the conversation can quickly become a lot more crowded, much more chaotic. “Again,” Costolo said in the speech, “if you think about going back to the Agora, what if everyone in the world is at the Agora?”

By Costolo’s account, “we don't see these two-dimensional media filtered perspectives of people, we see the real person.” And yet even then, in his paean for Twitter, Costolo acknowledged one of its greatest frustrations: “The down side of that is man, it's noisy when everybody is there.”

AN AGORA IS ALWAYS going to cause agoraphobia for some, and Twitter still hasn’t figured out what to do about all the noise. Private conversations aren’t easy on this mostly public platform, especially compared to other social networking sites, like Facebook, which have focused on developing their messaging features.

Twitter is very good at creating public networks, both personal and professional, but not very good at nurturing them. Through hashtags and lists, favorites and retweets, Twitter allows users to find one another, but then what?

Twitter all but ignored its direct-messaging feature until very recently, not surprisingly as the company struggled to monetize. Advertising revenue for the second quarter of this year alone was $277 million, almost 89 percent of its total revenue. Ads are a more comfortable fit on the public stream than in the private messages, so it’s understandable why Twitter focused its development efforts there. But the company is now trying to figure out how users can whisper in the town square. In April, Costolo toldBloomberg’s Emily Chang that Twitter would now focus on private messaging.

“There are frequently public conversations that you would like to grab hold of,” he said, “and take into whisper mode with a friend and say ‘Hey, this thing has happened. Look what these people are talking about. What do you think about this,’ with a friend or more than one friend.” Costolo said specifically, “being able to move fluidly between that public conversation and the private conversation is something we’ll make simpler.”

It was a priority he repeated in an interview last month with Business Insider’s Jay Yarow when Costolo addressed Facebook’s migration of messages into a separate app. “At present,” he said, “the best place for us to innovate is within the Twitter application because there’s so much value in migrating the public conversation to the private channel.”

Twitter is very good at creating public networks, both personal and professional, but not very good at nurturing them. Through hashtags and lists, favorites and re-tweets, Twitter allows users to find one another, but then what? Such friendships and relationships almost immediately move off Twitter into back channels: you exchange phone numbers and begin sending each other text messages; you start a Slack HQ channel so you can send messages to a group of users or share links easily; you use Google Chat because it’s easier to have simultaneous conversations with multiple users, and it’s right there, integrated into your email.

If the purpose of social networks is finding the people you actually want to talk to, then Twitter needs to not only facilitate the finding, but the talking. Once you have made friends, or by Twitter parlance found people you enjoying following, you want to deepen those connections, not necessarily continue creating new ones. That’s what DMs do that public tweets do not. If a platform doesn’t allow for intimacy once relationships are formed, then its users will inevitably leave it. Imagine a dating service that only offered first dates, or a movie theater that showed only previews but no feature-length films.

The reason most other social networks have focused their attention on messaging is that their users have matured, and instead of wanting to create new connections, they want to deepen the ones they have already created. It’s a bit like what Jasper tells Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: “You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first.”

WHEN TWITTER LAUNCHED IN July of 2006, it didn’t even have a messaging option. It wasn’t until November of that year that Biz Stone asked on Twitter’s blog: “Are You Getting Messages?” Explaining DMs, Stone wrote: “That’s where messages sent directly to you from another Twitter user get archived on the web.”

Two days later, Stone made another, splashier post: “Six More Twitter Updates!” Those included the ability to favorite and delete tweets, but also send private messages. “You can get direct messages from other Twitter uses that you have designated as ‘Friend,’” Stone wrote in the post. “These messages are not Twitter updates, they are notes directly to you and we archive them on the web in case you choose not to receive them via SMS or IM.”

Eight years later, and not much has changed. There is still no way to forward a DM to another user. Some verified users are able to send hyperlinks in a direct message, but most users cannot. And the ability to send photographs by DM was only added last year. Beginning in July, users could view their DM history, but before that it was almost impossible to access anything but your most recent messages.

One of the most frustrating aspects of messaging on Twitter is that you can only send DMs to users who follow you, though you can receive them from any user you follow. Say Taylor Swift direct messages a fan to say, “Thanks for coming to my show!” That user can receive the DM, but not respond to the superstar. Spend enough time on Twitter, and you see a lot of public tweets asking “Can you follow me so I can send you a DM?” or “Got your DM, but can’t respond unless you follow me back.”

Twitter ran a brief experiment last year when users could choose to receive DMs from any other user. The experiment ended quickly, perhaps because of how spammers were beginning to use DMs. Spam is still a concern for Twitter, which limits daily tweets to 2,400, but also direct messages to 250 per day.

Another concern has always been finding a way to adequately differentiate between public tweets and private messages. “DM fails” plagued Twitter in the early years, and some of Twitter’s greatest scandals have involved direct messages. Actress Alison Pill once tweeted a topless photograph she was trying to direct message her fiancee, actor Jay Baruchel. Pill apologized, and Baruchel tweeted: “Smartphones will get ya.”

Perhaps the most famous DM fail came in May of 2011, when then Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a link to a photo. While for days Weiner denied sending the link and insisted that his Twitter account had been hacked, a week later he admitted: "Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle.” It was the first of many admissions, and 10 days after that press conference, Weiner announced his resignation from the House of Representatives.

At the time, part of the press conversation was not only about sexting, but specifically the difference between a public tweet and a private message. Many observed that because Weiner accessed Twitter through the dashboard application Tweetdeck, the difference between a DM and a tweet was only one letter: by failing to preface the link to the pornographic photograph with a “D,” Weiner sent a public tweet instead of a private message to that user.

Two years later, Twitter changed direct messaging slightly so that users could send and receive images themselves, not links, as Weiner had sent in 2011. Just as photographs displayed in tweets, now they were visible in DMs. Twitter also added a Messages tab to the mobile app’s bottom navigation bar, so it was easier to distinguish between DMs and tweets on the home screen.

Another change came earlier this summer when Twitter made back-end changes to sync direct messages across platforms. Before, there were inconsistencies in sending and storing DMs. These messages worked like tweets themselves: even though a copy appeared in both the sender’s messages and those of the recipient, either user deleting a message deleted it from both accounts. By syncing DMs across apps and devices, Twitter improved the cache system so that even if you read a DM on your iPad, it would display as read on your iPhone, and even if you deleted a DM on Twitter’s website, it would still be deleted on TweetDeck. It also ended that era of mutually assured destruction, when either user could erase the conversation.

The sync and archive changes were a start, but Twitter’s direct messaging feature could still be improved. Right now, users regularly take to DM to gossip or talk trash, but also flirt or exchange sensitive information for customer service.

Laurie Davis, author of Love @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating and founder of online dating consultancy eFlirt Expert, says that direct messaging is critical for relationships. “When you meet someone on Twitter, it’s important to start the relationship in public, but once you get serious, you switch to DM.”

Davis said, “Over 20 percent of online relationships start on social networks, which makes sense since they are where we make relationships—of course they’d crossover into dating.” Davis met her husband on Twitter, through a hashtag no less: “I was living in New York and he lived in Boston. I was going to be visiting Boston, so after a few public @s, I went to DM to say I’d be visiting and would he get a drink.”

She said users look for that kind of context, either a reason to cross paths, or something from another user’s timeline that can be the occasion for a more personal direct message exchange. She pointed out that a lot of dating apps and sites are starting to focus on events, but you can already find those kinds of connections on Twitter through hasthtags. “Maybe you both follow the same football team or opposing teams and they’re playing each other,” she explained, “so why not direct message to say something playful like loser buys beers.”

“Part of why people connect on Twitter,” Davis said, “is because it feels more natural. It feels like the kind of interaction you might have with someone in a bar, only digital.”

For many of the brands and corporations on Twitter, interactions often require the exchange of private or sensitive information. Public tweets can connect these businesses with their customers, but sometimes customer service requires a bit more privacy, and so often after a few tweets, the interaction will migrate to DM.

Verizon receives 307,000 mentions annually related to customer service “and engage[s] with about 70 percent of those where there is an actionable request,” Robert Elek, a company spokesperson, says over email. That means that Verizon “handle[s] approximately 25K DMs annually.”

Most Verizon DMs move the customer interaction from the public space of Twitter to the private space of the Social Media Support Team’s chat service by personalized link. “If no chat agents are available,” Elek says, “the customer is presented a form to fill out with their account information which is then sent to the Verizon Social Media Support Team via e-mail.”

However circuitous it may seem, Verizon is able to engage with customers on social media platforms like Twitter, but also protect their account information by moving the support interaction away from social media. Verizon, unlike many businesses on Twitter, is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission’s Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) regulations.

TWITTER DMS ARE OFTEN more convenient for users—consider a flight passenger stranded on the tarmac who can’t access an airline’s online chat feature—than alternative channels for communication. They are also useful for businesses whose interactions might otherwise involve overly detailed emails or unnecessarily loquacious phone conversations with customers. A few 140-character DMs might solve a problem that required thousands of words by email and dozens of minutes on the phone.

The same is true for reporters who find DMs are a useful way of connecting with sources or communicating with those who are anonymous. J.K. Trotter, a reporter at Gawker, says that direct messaging on Twitter is “immensely helpful because you don’t have someone’s email address, especially on a business story so the employer can’t search their business emails.” Direct messaging is also useful for tipsters, who Trotter says might be prone to overly long emails, but “DMs completely condense all of those impulses into 140 characters.”

Not every source, though, can be found on Twitter, and not every story can be reported through social media. Trotter contrasts some of his early stories on legacy media outlets Fox News and the New York Times with more recent stories on the digital media outfit BuzzFeed. “Older media gossip,” he says, “is all very cloak and dagger. Not many of those people are on Twitter, whereas reporting on BuzzFeed, that’s the most natural way to talk to some of these sources.”

“Twitter is becoming a Bloomberg terminal for reporters, and Bloomberg terminals obviously had that private message function, so this is a free, less-financed, focused tool for doing that,” Trotter says. A reporter can locate sources on Twitter, either by following live tweets or linking users with breaking news, and DMs are a liminal space between public tweets and meeting in person.

Direct messages are also less formal than email, and the messaging tab of Twitter can serve as an alternative inbox for those with email fatigue, not only reporters. The 140-character limit on DMs, like public tweets, encourages concision in a way that other forms of communication cannot. Such brevity needn’t relegate direct messages to superficiality, instead it can enforce soulful wit, polite pithiness.

RIGHT NOW, IF YOU know someone well enough to DM, you almost always take the interaction off Twitter and onto some other channel or network. A few changes to DM, though, would allow Twitter to keep these users on the service. Instead of moving to a messaging app or email, Twitter itself is capable of hosting these private exchanges.

Some of the improvements for direct messaging are obvious: a few features that are already available for public tweets should be available for DMs. Embedded tweets and link previews already appear on your timeline, so why not in DMs? The options for every public tweet—reply, re-tweet, favorite, email—should also include direct message, meaning you shouldn’t have to copy a link to a tweet to paste into a direct message, but should be able to DM the tweet itself to any user.

Same for forwarding and favoriting direct messages: Messages should be easily acknowledged, say with a favorite, but also easily shared, say with a forward feature that allows you to send a direct message from one user with another user. Twitter users should also be able to search their DMs the way they can their tweets; the archive is a start, but why not a search feature built into the Messages option on the navigation bar on the app and website.

Twitter canoes, those tweets which gather multiple users into the same conversations, should be possible in direct messages, too. Group DMs, where you can privately message multiple users at once, should be enabled to keep users on Twitter and not migrating conversations to GChat or iMessage or Slack. You should also be able to respond to any DM, whether or not that user follows you: once someone initiates a conversation over DM, the other user should be able to continue it; you shouldn’t have to “follow back”—instead, replying to DMs should be an automatic option.

Private conversations might not be immediately profitable for Twitter, but they can draw new users and keep the old ones on the service, all of which make the stream’s advertising more profitable. The agora needs a few spaces where users can whisper in public, even, perhaps especially, if those spaces aren’t plastered with ads. If Twitter wants to compete with Facebook’s WhatsApp, Pinterest’s messages, or even a service like SnapChat, then it needs to improve its private channel the way it has its public channel.