Twitter’s popularity may have exploded over the past year, but its feature set continues to evolve at a seemingly glacial pace.
New users quickly realize that they need to shop around in the Twitter developer ecosystem for add-on software and Web-based services that fill in missing features and address the annoyances that the microblogging service’s deficiencies present.
While this ad-hoc approach to completing Twitter is great for the community of developers working on complementary products, it doesn’t foster a coherent environment for users. Twitter Inc. relies heavily on third parties to develop the most basic solutions rather than provide a robust core feature set within its basic service.
To be sure, Twitter has a strong ecosystem of developers who, using Twitter’s API, have built applications that address many of the service’s shortcomings. “What is amazing to me about Twitter is the degree to which the community has learned to game the system to create work-arounds,” says Margaret Wallace, a Twitter enthusiast and CEO of Rebel Monkey Inc., a developer of online games.
“Twitter has gone further in opening up its APIs than most companies, so it is easy to build these things,” says Jeffrey Mann, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. For Twitter, he says, the real value is in the tweets, not the tools to make tweets. More developers means more traffic. “They want to build out the platform, not the tools,” says Mann. But since no tool does it all, some users end up with a full toolbox.
Wallace finds herself flitting among several different tools that augment or extend her Twitter environment. She regularly depends on Buzzom, Mr. Tweet, Tweetie and TinyURL, and she occasionally turns to WeFollow, Twitterholic and Twitpic to meet her needs.
She’s not alone: Computerworld spoke with a variety of sources for this story, from run-of-the-mill users to celebrity tweeters. While individual lists of Twitter annoyances varied a bit, about a dozen criticisms rose to the top. All of the users said that they rely on third-party tools to remedy shortcomings, but the component stereo approach to Twitter has its limits. Most would like to see at least some of the missing features integrated into a more complete offering.
Like Wallace, many users aren’t happy about having to move among several different services to manage all aspects of their Twitter environment. Howard Rheingold, a frequent Twitterer, lecturer at Stanford University and author of the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, thinks more of the core functionality needs to be pulled into one place. “I only have so much patience with installing applications,” he says.
We ran several of these criticisms by Twitter for comment — and received no response. A Twitter PR representative did reply to one initial question for this story but did not reply or acknowledge a more detailed list of questions, despite repeated attempts to contact her over a two-week period. Messages left for others at the company, including co-founder Evan Williams, also went unanswered.
Do these Twitter shortcomings annoy you? Judge for yourself. Here’s our list of top annoyances — and the third-party tools and fixes users say they’ve come up with to work around them. When you’ve finished reading, vote in our quick poll to let Twitter know which enhancements you’d most like to see, or discuss your pet Twitter peeves in the article comments.
No support for groups
The inability to group the people you are following into discrete message streams (news, family, friends, etc.) is one of the biggies. Grouping is vital as the number of people you follow and who follow you expands.
Fortunately, the lack of support for groups is one that many third-party tools address very well. The TweetDeck user interface software for Twitter was among the first products to offer support for groups, and it remains one of the most popular Twitter add-ons.
Other tools offer their own unique group features. Laura Fitton, founder and CEO of Pistachio Consulting and a heavy Twitter user, says she likes the fact that PeopleBrowsr groups can follow everyone who has used a specific hashtag, such as #iranelection, while Twitter4Groups lets you set up private notification groups.
Alternative user interfaces do a good job. Still, why not offer at least a basic group functionality within the Twitter interface?
TweetDeck is a popular tool that lets you create and manage Twitter groups.
All or nothing privacy
Without support for groups, it is difficult to offer private message streams to certain users. Today, privacy is an all-or-nothing proposition on Twitter.
Sure, you can use Twitter’s direct message (DM) feature to send a private message to any individual — if that person follows you. And @replies are semi-private in that those messages can be seen only by Twitter users who follow both the sender and the recipient. You can also “protect” all updates to your Twitter stream, making them private so that only followers you approve can see them. But Twitter won’t allow you to have a mix of both public tweets and private ones that, for example, only your friends or co-workers can see.
“I want to be able to notify a specific team privately but do so right in the main stream of their normal Twitter usage,” Fitton says. For that she needs a work-around like the one offered by GroupTweet and similar tools.
But the solution is a bit of a kludge. For example, GroupTweet’s scheme requires that you set up a separate Twitter account for your group name, protect it and then explicitly allow each member of the group to view tweets from that account. When one group member sends a DM to the group account, GroupTweet republishes it as a tweet that all group members can follow. It works, but native Twitter support for private groups would be much cleaner.
No consolidated view of multiple user accounts
Not only can’t you group tweets, Twitter won’t let you group multiple accounts you’ve created into a single aggregated view. If you have more than one Twitter account, there’s no way to get a consolidated view of the activity across those accounts. Instead, you must log into them one at a time.
You also can’t associate more than one Twitter account with a single e-mail address. While the Twitter ecosystem of third-party tools and services doesn’t solve this directly, there are tools that can pull together all of your accounts into a single view, including TweetGrid, FriendFeed and Tweetie, which runs on the iPhone and Mac OS X.
A rising tide of spam
As Twitter traffic has increased, so has all of the lovely spam that users must deal with. Spammers have infected tweets, direct messages, @reply messages and follower lists. To get messages in front of as many users as possible, tweet spam often includes the trending topic keywords du jour that Twitter has posted on its Twitter.com and Twitter Search Web sites, and it may include other popular search terms and Twitter #hashtags in order to push the spam message into as many Twitter streams and search results as possible.
Twitter spam may be structured to include a pitch right in the tweet, or it may do a bait and switch, where an embedded hot link goes to a Web site with content that’s completely unrelated to the original message. Twitter spam messages that include hot links may lead the recipient to a Web site containing a product pitch — or malware. Retweets may replace the original text and are then associated with a trusted name. That became a continuing problem for the online publication Search Engine Land, says Editor in Chief Danny Sullivan.
Two types of Twitter spam: The direct pitch (top) pitches a porn site directly, while the bait and switch (bottom) talks about one topic but includes a link to a porn site.
Short URLs embedded in a tweet can serve to obfuscate obvious links to spam, porn or malware sites. Some third-party applications let users view the full URL before they click on the hot link: TweetDeck, for example, can be configured to open a preview window that displays the expanded URL when you click on the link, while Mixero shows you the full link when you hover your mouse cursor over the short URL.
These previews can help you avoid URLs that are obviously inappropriate. They won’t, however, help if the full URL doesn’t offer any clues that you’re about to be transported to an undesirable site.
Rebel Monkey’s Wallace finds the growing spam problem frustrating. “Twitter really needs to move quickly to implement better filtering and user-initiated blocking,” she says.
Shea Bennett, a Twitter enthusiast and author of a blog called Twittercism, says the current blocking mechanism is useless. “People you’ve blocked can still read your timeline, retweet you, @reply you, etc.,” he says.
Twitter does regular sweeps that purge thousands of spam accounts, but new ones are opened up just as quickly — and Twitter offers only limited tools to help users clean it up. Users can block followers who are suspected spammers and report spammers by sending a direct message with the account name to Twitter’s Spam Watch account. However, both processes are cumbersome if the volume of spam is significant.
“I don’t like spammers, so I have to spend some time blocking them, even though it’s not my job,” says Rheingold. But he does it anyway, he says, because it helps Twitter identify and shut down offending accounts.
One third-party product, Clean Tweets, provides additional tools to help Twitter users combat spam. The product, a free Firefox toolbar add-on from Web analytics vendor BLVD Status, deletes tweets from your account page when the account that created them is less than 24 hours old or when it includes three or more trending topic keywords (you can adjust that number up or down). But keeping up isn’t easy: To get around the 24-hour rule, some spammers are “aging” new accounts before attempting to follow other users.
Clean Tweets also allows the user to flag spam messages. It displays an “X” next to each tweet. When the user clicks on the “X,” the post is removed and future posts from that account are not displayed. Chris Bennett, co-founder and president of BLVD Status, says the company also plans to add a feature that detects tweets that contain hot links to malware sites.
Direct messages: More trouble than they’re worth?
As noted above, Twitter’s direct message feature lets you send a private message to another Twitter user, but only if that person is following you. Bennett thinks the DM mechanism isn’t well thought out. “The direct message system is rubbish — it needs things like built-in search, marking, mass deletion, filters, etc.,” he says. But DMs are an annoyance for another reason: They have become an attack vector for spammers.
How is this possible? Since you must follow a user to be able to receive a direct message from them, anyone who doesn’t follow other people — or who is extremely careful about who they follow — won’t be bothered by DM spam. But it’s easy to follow the wrong person; when someone follows you, it’s natural to follow them back.
What’s more, many users who attract a large number of followers have turned to third-party services such as SocialOomph to automatically follow new followers. Such users are particularly vulnerable to DM abuse, and not just from commercial spammers. Otherwise normal Twitter users who use tools like SocialOomph to send automated DMs to greet new followers — and include self-promotional links, jargon and so on — are also a growing problem, says Fitton.
Wallace says her incoming DMs are now mostly spam. What’s worse, she says, Twitter doesn’t provide a way to delete them en masse. “Auto DMs and spammers have outpaced the level of service provided by DMs, rendering them obsolete at best and an annoyance at worst,” she says.
As always in the Twitterverse, there are some fixes. SocialToo, for example, not only allows you to automatically follow accounts that follow you, but also lets you automatically unfollow accounts that exhibit spammer-like behavior. It also lets you block automated DMs, filtering them through a set of customizable rules.
The SocialToo service offers filters and other controls to reduce DM spam.
Still, Twitter could make DMs work better by allowing users to filter incoming messages, mark offending DMs as spam and delete them in batches. Fitton thinks the whole DM model of requiring a subject to follow you before you can send them a message is flawed. “Why not permit DMs by default?” she asks. Then users could exclude those who send DM spam or other unwanted messages.
But the DM channel wouldn’t be needed at all if Twitter allowed users to send private @replies. “Maybe you ought to have a checkbox that says ‘private’ if you don’t want your tweet to appear in the public timeline,” Fitton says. It’s a minor change, she says, that would lead to a cleaner design.
No conversation threads for @replies
A cleaner design is exactly what’s needed when it comes to management of @reply messages. Twitter allows you to reply to any tweet with an @reply, but reply messages don’t link back to the original message. With no conversation threading, tracking who said what in a string of @reply messages can get confusing fast.
“Sometimes by the time someone replies to me on Twitter, I’ve forgotten what I originally said,” says Lisa Hoover, a blogger who has written for Computerworld.
Twitter competitors such as Jaiku and Identi.ca do offer threaded conversations. But on Twitter, if you want to get a consolidated view of your tweet streams you need to go through a service such as FriendFeed. Message threading is a basic feature that Twitter should incorporate into its own platform.
Weak follower management
As with groups, the lack of good follower management features has led to a bounty of third-party tools designed to fill in the gaps.
How do you identify who’s following you and whether you should follow them back? With the tools that Twitter provides, that’s not easy. Twitter simply lists followers in the order they were added, along with their last tweet. You can’t sort that list differently, and to see more detail, such as each person’s bio, number of followers, recent activity and other statistics, you must click through to each user’s Twitter home page. It’s cumbersome, especially when you’re managing a large group of followers.
“The lack of decent follower tools has spawned a cottage industry in itself,” Wallace says. Web sites like My Tweeple, Mr. Tweet and Buzzom make searching and managing follower and following lists easier.
Michaela Vorvoreanu is an assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Technology who studies the impact of Twitter and other communications technologies on the culture and society — and is a frequent Twitterer herself. She’d like to see Twitter do better in this area.
“I’d like to be able to sort through the list of followers by various criteria, such as alphabetical order, Twitter activity, date joined, date followed, whether they’re following me back, etc.,” she says. She’d also like to see detailed information in the notification e-mail when someone follows her, along with an embedded “follow” button. For now, however, she uses Topify and says that it “does most of those things for me.”
Ineffective support for short URLs
This sounds like a little nit, but if you embed a lot of links in your tweets this lack of attention to detail on Twitter’s part quickly becomes a big deal. Twitter shortens URLs in a tweet after you publish it, rather than when you’re composing the message. With only 140 characters to work with, users would like to have that short URL when composing the message, rather than after the fact.
To get around the problem, users must switch over to a site like bit.ly or TinyURL.com to create a short URL, then return to Twitter and paste the result into the message.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some third-party Twitter clients, such as TweetDeck, shorten the URL automatically. With others, such as Seesmic Desktop, you paste a long URL in a separate space and hit Enter and get a shortened version that’s pasted onto the end of your tweet. Twitter should do the same.
The fail whale: No endangered species
For regular Twitter users, a sighting of the service’s infamous “fail whale” is an all-too-frequent occurrence. “The most annoying thing is the reliability of the [Twitter] service,” says Vorvoreanu.
While Twitter is better than it was a year ago, Wallace says it’s still not uncommon for her to get the fail message several times in a day. “On the most basic level — the user experience — the service is unreliable,” she says.
In one sense that’s understandable, given Twitter’s meteoric rise. Twitter says that its user base grew 900% between January 2008 and January 2009. Media metrics tracker Nielsen Online puts Twitter’s year-over-year growth rate at an astounding 1,928%, with unique visitors per month surging from 1.03 million in June 2008 to 20.9 million in June 2009.
Twitter’s “fail whale” (indicating a system outage or server overload condition) is seen all too frequently.
That’s a lot to handle. But the persistence of reliability problems over time still bothers users like Wallace. “I just don’t understand why they don’t migrate to a more stable network and address what seem to be issues of reliability and scale,” she says.
Scalability isn’t Twitter’s only concern when it comes to uptime and reliability. As Twitter’s popularity continues to skyrocket, it has become more of a target for hackers — witness last month’s crippling DDoS attack against the service. That makes it doubly important for the company to develop a robust and stable architecture.
Limited by API limits
Twitter’s not responding. What’s wrong? If you use third-party applications to access the service, it might just be that you’ve exceeded your API limits.
“I’m sure a lot of Twitter users don’t understand how they reached the API call limit, let alone what an API call is in the first place,” Wallace says.
Third-party applications, or “clients,” use the Twitter API to interact with the service, but Twitter limits such activity to a certain number of API calls (information requests) per hour. Refreshes of tweet, @reply and direct message feeds through an interface like TweetGrid or TweetDeck, for example, can quickly use up API calls, especially during conferences or other events where constant Twittering takes place. And when a user goes over the limit, it’s not always clear what has happened.
Until recently, Twitter’s API limited clients to 100 calls per hour. That limit caused Vorvoreanu, a TweetDeck user, to get locked out during an event where active Twittering was taking place. On July 1, Twitter reportedly increased the limit to 150 calls. But Wallace still hit the API limit one day early in July and was unable to add followers, even though she was under the follower limit. Twitter didn’t indicate what was wrong. “I just thought there was something wrong with Twitter’s functionality again,” she says.
Chris Bennett of BLVD Status says he’s OK with the current limit, but he can see why others want a higher limit — or no limit at all. “I know of some people that change accounts after each limit to get more,” he says. But he’s not sure, given the current state of Twitter’s infrastructure, that having no upper limit at all would be a good idea. “It could get pretty nasty, I would think,” he says, of the potential for overloading Twitter’s service.
There is one work-around for this problem: Check to see if your third-party applications allow you to decrease the frequency of API calls by, for example, doing refreshes less frequently. But that’s a level of detail that most users would rather not have to deal with.
Why can’t I follow you?
No good tweet goes unpunished. Popular Twitter accounts draw lots of followers — until they hit Twitter’s glass ceiling.
Twitter places limits on the number of followers a user can have as a way to control spammers and others who abuse the service, but some users complain that the rules aren’t always clear, that they keep changing, and that they’re not consistently applied. Wallace, who says she was capped at 2,000 followers, calls such artificial limits “bogus.” She sees the policy as a blunt instrument that punishes legitimate users in order to filter out a few bad apples.
“It is so de-motivational to cut off legitimate users because another, better solution hasn’t been devised,” she says. And Wallace chafes at reports that some early users have been exempted from the rules. “This kind of mixed messaging really hurts the Twitter ecosystem,” she says. “It makes me feel that some Tweeters are more equal than others.”
It’s hard to see how a policy that ticks off thousands of Twitter’s most loyal users is a good strategy to deal with those who abuse the system. Here’s a better strategy: Just drop follower limits.
The case of the missing tweet
If you’ve ever tried to search for an old tweet on Twitter Search and couldn’t find it, you’re not alone. Twitter loses some tweets, says Search Engine Land‘s Sullivan. Indeed, this reporter went searching for a tweet that mentioned an interesting company — but it seems to have disappeared.
Sullivan, who wrote about the problem while reporting a story on real-time search, thinks that Twitter should allow users to export their tweets so they can preserve them. What’s more, he says, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has tweeted that “It’s on the list” of features Twitter would like to add. No indication as to when, however.
The export function is a good idea. Standards have evolved that allow users to export content from blogs or Gmail messages and contacts in order to import that content into other applications or services, or as a backup. But wouldn’t it be better if users could simply trust Twitter not to lose them?
A few more Twitter requests
While the annoyances listed above are the ones we heard most frequently from Twitter users, a few other requests surfaced quite often. Any thoughts of adding these features, Twitter?
- A retweet button
- The ability to edit tweets after submission
- The ability to write longer tweets
- A way to permanently delete tweets
- A daily e-mail digest summarizing new followers and unfollowers
- Notifications — either via e-mail or with an indicator at Twitter.com — when new @reply messages arrive
- Better tools for embedding Twitter feeds on a Web site
Will Twitter address these annoyances or continue to let its developer ecosystem fill in the holes? Will it acquire and integrate at least some best-of-breed third-party tools, as it did with Summize (which it relaunched as Twitter Search) last year? Twitter declined to comment, but Gartner’s Mann doesn’t see that happening.
More fully featured alternatives are waiting in the wings. Competing short messaging services such as Identi.ca and Jaiku offer a more feature-rich user interface. Neither of those services has the critical mass of users needed to challenge Twitter, which has somewhere in the neighborhood of 28 million users, according to Web audience tracking firm Quantcast Corp. — but momentum can change quickly. Meanwhile, Facebook’s August acquisition of FriendFeed could potentially bring tens of millions of Facebook users onto the competing — and more fully featured — social networking service.
“This certainly puts more pressure on them,” Mann says, but adds that Twitter still needs to develop its business model, which may involve charging for tools and services that help businesses make sense of all of those tweets. He thinks Twitter is likely to leave the user annoyances to the developers to fix, and instead focus on building — or acquiring — tools and services that it can charge for.
If true, that means users are likely going to have to put up with Twitter annoyances — or hope that third-party tools and services can surmount them — for the foreseeable future.