The REAL Problem with Twitter

Forget Ashton Kutcher and Oprah, forget #unfollowfriday, forget 25 Random Evil Things about Twitter — the key problems with the social media / microblogging / broadcast IM / whatever you want to call it service boil down to two problems:

  1. It asks the wrong question
  2. It was designed around limitations of cell phone text messaging

The Wrong Question

Twitter’s prompt is not something general like “What’s on your mind?” It’s “What are you doing?” That encourages people to post things like “I’m eating lunch” or “Just got into work,” or “Posting on Twitter.” Presumably what they mean is “What are you doing that you think people would find interesting?” but of course that’s too long a prompt from a usability standpoint.

The thing is, there’s no reason to broadcast the mundane to the world. Don’t tell me “I’m eating soup.” Tell me, “Just learned that gazpacho soup is best served cold. I wonder if they eat it in space?”

Unfortunately, that means the signal-to-noise ratio can get pretty bad at times.

Outgrowing its Limitations

Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters of plain text so that the your name and comments can fit in a standard SMS message. Now, this is great if you use Twitter via text messages on your mobile phone. It’s not so great if you use Twitter on the web, or through a smartphone app like Twitterific on iPhone or Twidroid on Android, or through any of the zillions of desktop apps.

I don’t have a problem with the 140-character limit itself (it can actually be liberating in a way), though it would be nice to have some formatting options beyond all-caps and *asterisk bolding*.

The real problem is that links have to share that limit. URL-shortening services have exploded lately as people try to squeeze links into the tiniest space possible to save room for their precious text. Even if you use something as short as is.gd, just including one link means you’re down to 122 characters.

Plus URL shorteners come with a host of problems, in particular the fact that they hide the destination. That’s no big deal if the target matches the description, or if it’s a harmless prank like a Rick Roll, but it’s all too easy to disguise something malicious.

Seriously, if you got an email that said something like this:

Look at this! http://example.com/asdjh

Would you click on that link? Even if it appeared to be from someone you know? That’s just asking to get your computer infected by a virus, trojan horse or other piece of malware. Or to see something you wish you could unsee.

Better Link Sharing: Facebook

I hesitate to bring up Facebook as a good example of anything, and I know the current layout is largely reviled by its users, but they really got posting links right.

When you want to post a link to your Facebook profile, you paste in the full URL. Facebook reads the page and extracts the title, a short summary, and possible thumbnail images. Then you have the normal amount of space to write your comment.

The one thing I don’t like about it is that it opens the link in a frame with a Facebook “toolbar” at the top, but aside from that, it’s much cleaner and more informative. I mean, compare this:

Kelson Vibber: Official Google Blog: Will it lens? Source: googleblog.blogspot.com Not long ago, a bunch of us in our Santa Monica office pooled together the money to buy a four-foot by three-foot Fresnel lens. We've since been spending our lunch hours out in the sun playing with it.

to this:

Google employees ask the all-important question: Will It Lens? http://is.gd/rOoi

In the Facebook example, it pulled in enough information that I didn’t even need to add a comment. The link itself consists of meaningful words, there’s an indication of where it goes (googleblog.blogspot.com), an excerpt…and then of course there’s the image.

In the Twitter example, I made an effort to come up with a description (many people don’t bother), and then the link itself is just gibberish.

I’d like to see at least some of this capability in Twitter.

Maybe make links a separate field, so that the message itself doesn’t have to share those precious 140 characters, and have some sort of fallback for SMS users and older applications.

Or maybe just offer enhanced display on the Twitter website and on newer apps. Automatically follow the links (up to a certain number of redirects), extract a title (if there is one) and display something a little more legible than http://is.gd/rOoi

Come to think of it, that second option could be implemented in any Twitter client, or in a Greasemonkey script, without making any changes to Twitter itself. Hmm…

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