Twitter changes: 20 hits and misses from the social network's history

Twitter Sign

Grump’s Internet Law dictates that whenever a large social network like Facebook or Twitter changes its design or adds a major new feature, people kick up a stink online claiming it’s going to ruin the service.

Sometimes, they’re right, and the company executes a quick u-turn. Sometimes, the new feature flops and is retired at a later point. But quite often, the new feature beds in nicely, and becomes an important part of the social network.

Later today, Twitter will be making its latest announcements at its Flight conference, reportedly including a new app development platform called Fabric. The implications for Twitter users are sure to spark debate among its always-vocal community.

It’s a good point to look back at some of Twitter’s past changes and the impact they had on the social network and the people that use it.

Here are 20 of the changes that helped make Twitter what it is today, usually for the better, although occasionally – if only in the short term – for the worse.

Twitter verified accounts.
Twitter verified accounts.

Verified accounts (June 2009)

Many celebrities caught on to Twitter early in its life, but it was 2009 before their status was recognised with the now-familiar blue ‘Verified’ tick. It was a good move for those well-known individuals (plus companies and public agencies) to protect against impersonation.

That said, Twitter has occasionally been caught out by imposters who manage to get verified – most recently a Morrissey account that fooled Twitter and media outlets alike.

Hyperlinked hashtags (July 2009)

Hashtags weren’t actually Twitter’s invention, but the company caught on to the way people were using them to group tweets around specific events and topics. In July 2009, it made hashtags automatically hyperlinked, so that people could click on a hashtag to see other tweets using it.

Over time, that small feature has become increasingly important to Twitter: for example in its dealings with the television industry, as it tries to persuade broadcasters that it can be their “synchronised social soundtrack”.

Twitter lists.
Twitter lists.

Twitter lists (October 2009)

When Twitter revealed its Lists feature, it pitched them as a way to “curate” lists of interesting Twitter accounts either privately or publicly: “You could create a list of the funniest Twitter accounts of all time, athletes, local businesses, friends, or any compilation that makes sense,” explained the company at the time.

For power users, Twitter Lists have been a useful feature, especially if you follow hundreds of accounts and are prepared to take the time to divide them into separate lists. However, it’s not quite caught on yet for mainstream users, even though recommending good Lists to newcomers might be a way to make Twitter less intimidating when they first sign up.

Retweet buttons (November 2009)

In 2014, some people think it’s rude to manually re-post someone’s tweet with an RT at the start, rather than just tapping the retweet button. So it might be strange to think that once, all retweets were done in this way.

But in 2009, Twitter started rolling out its retweet button, initially to a “very small percentage of accounts”, suggesting that it “makes forwarding a particularly interesting tweet to all your followers very easy”. Since then, it’s become a familiar part of the service.

Promoted tweets (April 2010)

In the first half of 2014, Twitter made $503m from advertising. Back in 2010, though, the company was only just starting along the road to making money. Promoted Tweets was its long-anticipated advertising platform, with brands paying to have their tweets shown at the top of search results pages.

It wasn’t until the following year that Twitter started putting promoted tweets into people’s main streams, and it has since launched other kinds of ad too: Promoted Accounts and Promoted Trends for example. Thus far, Twitter appears to have walked the line well between making money and not annoying users.

@EarlyBird (July 2010)

This is one of the Twitter experiments that many people have forgotten. @EarlyBird was a new form of Twitter ad, but also an account that people could follow, tweeting out exclusive offers from advertising partners.

The first was a buy-one-get-one-free offer for tickets to Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice film, while the second was a deal to get a cheap TV set from US retailer Target. A few months later, @EarlyBird was shut down with then-COO Dick Costolo saying Twitter had “tremendous early success with it, but it needs to be reworked or rethought”. Or, indeed, shelved for good.

Twitter's first official mobile app.
Twitter’s first official mobile app.

Official mobile apps (2010)

A fun piece of mobile trivia for you: BlackBerry was actually first to get an official Twitter app in April 2010, thanks to a partnership between Research In Motion and Twitter. But the same month, the company signified its intentions by buying popular iPhone app Tweetie, rebranding it as Twitter in May – by which point there was also an official Android app.

Twitter’s move into mobile apps was controversial at the time and since, due to restrictions placed on other developers making their own Twitter apps. Yet predictions that Twitter would squeeze them out of the market proved wrong: some fell by the wayside, but TweetBot, Echofon and others are still around in 2014.

#NewTwitter (2011-12)

Twitter has gone through several redesigns in its history, with #NewTwitter being one of the most protracted: unveiled in September 2010, it rolled out to users over the next year, initially as a voluntary upgrade, before ultimately being a forced change for the last few refuseniks.

The key change here – again, one that feels to many Twitter users in 2014 like it’s always been there – was a two-pane design, with videos and photos now viewable within Twitter. It also introduced features like related content and mini-profiles.

It laid more foundations for the Twitter that we know in 2014. The rollout was completed in August 2011.

The Quick Bar – or
The Quick Bar – or “DickBar” (left) – wasn’t #winning. Photograph: PR

#DickBar (March 2011)

Hands up if you remember the #DickBar? Or, as it was officially known, the Quick Bar – Costolo was the inspiration for the nickname, coined by influential tech blogger John Gruber as “Dick-Bar”.

It was a storm in a teacup in March 2011, with users protesting loudly at the addition of a floating bar at the top of the tweet stream in Twitter’s iPhone app, showing trending topics – including promoted ones. It was annoying and intrusive, not least because it couldn’t be turned off.

Well, it could be... by Twitter. At the end of March, Twitter removed the feature. “After testing a feature and evaluating its merits, if we learn it doesn’t improve the user experience or serve our mission, we’ll remove that feature,” explained the company.

Downloadable archives (December 2012)

There were ways to dig back into your Twitter archives before this change, but Twitter’s launch of the ability to download all your past tweets made it a lot easier. It started rolling out to users at the end of 2012, providing tools to rewind the clock and view tweets by month, and search the archives.

This was the sort of new feature that power users loved – not least because it helped them boast about how long they’d been using Twitter – but it didn’t have a noticeable impact on newer users of the service.

Vine (January 2013)

Twitter’s move into shortform-video sharing started in October 2012, when it bought a fledgling mobile startup called Vine, which hadn’t launched its app yet. A few months later, it went live: a way to shoot and share six-second looping videos, leaked a day in advance when Costolo – now CEO – posted a Vine of someone cooking a steak tartare (above).

Vine has since gone from strength to strength, with versions for Android and Windows Phone, more video-editing features, and the addition of “loop counts” to show how popular individual clips are. By August 2014, more than 100m people a month were watching Vine videos, looping clips more than 1bn times a day.

Vine has also spawned its own subculture of “Viners” in areas including music, comedy and art, with some of its stars going on to find success in the mainstream media: from musicians like Shawn Mendes signing major-label deals and having chart hits to comedians like Dapper Laughs going on tour and bagging TV shows.

Twitter #Music (April 2013)

If Vine has been a big hit, Twitter #Music was a high-profile flop. It was the result of another acquisition – music startup Next Big Sound – and was pitched by Twitter as “a way to surface songs people are tweeting about” and thus help people discover new artists and music.

It launched as a website and iOS app, but by October that year rumours were already flying of its imminent demise, as it didn’t catch on. By April 2014, it was toast. But Twitter #Music did lay the groundwork for Twitter to do more around music since then – for example, its recent partnerships with SoundCloud and iTunes to play songs within people’s timelines.

Conversation chronology (August 2013)

Twitter’s “thin blue line” feature was controversial when introduced, due to the way it messed with the traditional reverse-chronological timeline of tweets. Now, in an effort to make conversations more “easy to follow”, up to three tweets would be shown in sequence, linked by a blue line.

As is often the way of these things, over time, the feature settled in to Twitter’s interface, and the complaints died down.

Emergency alerts (September 2013)

People have been turning to social networks in times of emergency – from natural disasters to terrorist attacks – for years. Twitter (and Facebook for that matter) have been figuring out what they can do beyond ensuring their services stay online at such times.

Twitter Alerts was Twitter’s strategy: “a new feature that brings us one step closer to helping users get important and accurate information from credible organizations during emergencies, natural disasters or moments when other communications services aren’t accessible”.

It involved signing up for alerts from specific accounts, initially in the US, Japan and Korea although it has since expanded elsewhere. An example of a new feature that draws praise rather than complaints – even if its effectiveness can’t be tested until an emergency happens.

In-stream mobile media (October 2013)

Photos and videos have been a prominent part of Twitter ever since the #NewTwitter redesign, but an update to Twitter’s iOS and Android apps in October 2013 did spark more debate, due to the way it showed “previews” of photos and Vine videos within the stream itself.

Would this result in people spamming Twitter with endless photos and videos, making it more of a chore to scroll down the timeline? As it happened, no. Although as and when Twitter introduces mobile video ads – especially if they play automatically like those on Facebook – this issue may raise its head again.

Blocking policy changes (December 2013)

In the last year, there has been growing discussion of Twitter’s responsibilities to protect users facing abuse and harassment on its service. Its decision in December 2013 to change the way its “blocking” system worked was a notable own goal, in that respect.

The change meant that blocking someone else on Twitter would not prevent them from following you and seeing your tweets. After an uproar accusing Twitter of making life easier for trolls, the company changed its mind.

“We never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe,” wrote Twitter’s Michael Sippey in a blog post. “Moving forward, we will continue to explore features designed to protect users from abuse and prevent retaliation.”

Twitter's new profile design.
Twitter’s new profile design. Photograph: PR

New profile design (April 2014)

Twitter’s latest design change revolved around your profile page, with a larger photo, customisable header and the ability to pin a tweet to the top of the page. A resemblance to Facebook sparked plenty of comment online, but since it rolled out to all users, unrest has been muted.

Mute button for mobile apps (May 2014)

The ability to “mute” people and/or hashtags has been very popular in third-party Twitter apps like Tweetbot, but it took Twitter until May 2014 to get in on the silencing action, with a mute feature for its iPhone and Android apps.

“Muting a user on Twitter means their Tweets and Retweets will no longer be visible in your home timeline, and you will no longer receive push or SMS notifications from that user,” explained the company.

The key point: they wouldn’t know they had been muted. A way to quietly unfollow boring, negative and/or over-spammy accounts without having to actually unfollow them. A boon, and not just for socially-awkward, conflict-averse British people. Although especially for us.

Animated GIFs (June 2014)

A sign of the times, this: the ability to share and view animated GIFs on Twitter’s website, Android and iPhone apps. Rather than spark complaints, it generated more conversations along the lines of “What, you can’t already share animated GIFs on Twitter?”

Cats, Taylor Swift, Superwholock and Beyoncé were the real beneficiaries, of course.

Inserting tweets in your timeline (October 2014)

Twitter’s most recent change before today has also been one of its most controversial: inserting tweets into your timeline from accounts that you don’t follow.

“There are times when you might miss out on tweets we think you’d enjoy,” explained Twitter earlier this month. “To help you keep up with what’s happening, we’ve been testing ways to include these tweets in your timeline — ones we think you’ll find interesting or entertaining.”

There has been a vocal backlash from experienced Twitter users, who fear it’s the first step towards more Facebook-style curation of their timelines: not just adding tweets in, but taking others away without their knowledge. For now, that’s not officially on the cards though.

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Powered by article was written by Stuart Dredge, for on Wednesday 22nd October 2014 17.01 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010