Why Twitter Should Lose Its Special Symbols

Have Twitter @replies and #hashtags become so universal that we can streamline them?

Why Twitter Should Lose Its Special Symbols
[Image: Flickr user Michael Coghlan]

There’s an irony to Twitter these days. It’s defined by its limitations–140 characters–but those limitations may be getting in the way of its larger ambitions. With investors to please, the company is now focused on how it will grow, or solve the well-documented problem of getting people to stay active once they sign up. To do that, they may have to start axing long-beloved features.


Twitter’s 140-character limit has caused a strange nomenclature of its own to crop up–one of RTs, DMs, @s, #s, MTs, and so forth. And so when news broke that Twitter was experimenting with phasing out @replies (and possibly hashtags) many speculated that it was because they were outdated, complicated conventions that only stood in the way of attracting new users.

“They’re doing what mature companies do,” says Ragy Thomas, founder and CEO of social media marketing platform Sprinklr. “Which is watch what their users need and watch what their potential viewers view as friction points and optimize for those needs.”

According to Thomas, social media has normalized around the concepts that @replies and hashtags were intended to represent. Since people are now familiar with calling out other users and topics in a message stream, the argument goes, it’s no longer necessary to have special tags.

“Twitter is now bigger than those constructs, and they no longer need them for it to grow, or connect people around content–this is just evolution. All is well in the universe.”

For Laura Hamilton, founder and CEO of startup Additive Analytics, a move like this might help, but it could also be Twitter missing the forest for the trees.

“It’s tough to get started on Twitter as a new content creator. When you first create an account, you have no followers,” says Hamilton. “Twitter starts to suggest some accounts for you to follow, but typically those are… people [who] are very unlikely to follow back a new user. It’s disheartening for a new user who’s tweeting original, fresh content but not getting many followers. I think a lot of would-be content-producers drop off at that stage.”


Instead, Hamilton believes that Twitter could do more to foster communities aligned with interests, to allow a network of strangers to grow more organically, perhaps according to location or profession. According to Hamilton, it’s not learning Twitter that’s hard–although she does admit that the interface can be “a bit confusing”–but participating in it.

“When a user engages with Twitter for the first time, they quickly ask themselves, ‘Why is this helpful? Why is this interesting?’” says Jessica Lawrence, executive director of New York Tech Meetup. “If the answers to those questions aren’t good enough, they see no real point in continuing to engage. Phasing out the @ symbol and hashtag may make the experience a bit more user-friendly, but I think that is just scratching the surface.”

Both Lawrence and Hamilton believe that, while new users might appreciate the potential of a more streamlined Twitter experience, the service’s frustrations lie elsewhere. But when I asked danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research about this, she took a stronger stance altogether.

“Every system requires learning the norms and affordances of the system,” says boyd. “Historically, barriers have often been part of what made the system exciting to users. Think: MySpace and backgrounds.” Geeky constructions like hashtags, boyd points out, are now used for late-night talk show skits and billboards and movie marketing campaigns.

“And, frankly,” boyd says, “you don’t need to know how to use these things to use Twitter. So the frame still doesn’t seem quite right.”