When Twitter introduced its blue line last summer—which connects users’ @-reply conversations into one, easier-to-follow chronological string—many longtime users were annoyed. It was clearly designed for newbies who had trouble following Twitter's format, and it's invasive to the stream. But the blue line, it turns out, can be easily hacked. And now it’s being used for exactly the opposite of its intended purpose: Rather than prompt conversation, it’s encouraging tweeters to talk to themselves.
The trick goes like this: First, tweet something. Hours or days later, when you want to add to the thought from that first tweet, simply pull it up and click reply—which is to say, reply to yourself. You can take out your own handle; Twitter will still consider it a reply. And when you click "tweet," the system will group the tweets together and send them both to the top of your followers' feeds
This is what it looks like:
As you can see, author Teju Cole here is the only person connected by the blue lines, meaning he is the only person in the conversation. (Expanding the tweets doesn't reveal other tweeters, either.) And he did it over what in the Twitterverse is a yawning amount of time. Note the time stamps: 3h, 7m, then 5m. The delay doesn't matter; Twitter will pull the entire conversation into the feed at the time of the most recent tweet.
Of course, it's not as if the blue line is ushering in some totally new way of communicating. Prior to this tweet-at-yourself era, when someone had a thought that wouldn't fit into 140 characters, they might indicate a string of connected ideas by serializing the messages: 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and so on. The less organized among us might tweet out related ideas in rapid-fire succession, hoping followers would see them all in one glance. But both methods were cumbersome and only worked in a small window of time. Only the more profound Twitter rants might get Storified, like Marc Andreessen's February opus on the future of media, and thus seen by a wider audience. Teju Cole’s three-hour span would have just never worked.
Now that has changed. Sometimes people respond to themselves to complete a thought, or add an addendum to an opinion, like Cole. Other times it's used as the punchline to a joke. Or, as one avid Twitter user told me, "boring political people use it to continue their boring long arguments about politics."
None of that fits in to how Twitter intended blue-line conversations to work. "Last summer we made it easier for people to follow and participate in conversations on Twitter," a spokesperson tells Fast Company. Its introduction last August, ahead of the company's IPO, was a move to capitalize on Twitter’s social connections and hopefully draw more monetizable users. But the company isn't going to block this new use: "We've been pleasantly surprised by how our users have adapted this capability to connect their own tweets," the spokesperson says. From the hashtag to the retweet, Twitter users have a history of making up their own ways to communicate on the service anyway.
So is this a new phase in the evolution of Twitter communication, or a step backwards? The early uses of Twitter's reply function set the service on its path as a social, conversational tool, rather than a site for people to send mundane status updates. "If you look at all the early tweets, there are no conversations until people started using the @ symbol. Even Noah [Glass] wasn’t using it to comment to other people," Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told the New Yorker. As the service grew and progressed, Twitter's founders realized that conversationality was the site's biggest asset.
But this reply-to-yourself behavior could represent a shift in the way we view the tweet itself. When you can easily string tweets together, it stands to reason, the 140-character limit becomes meaningless—much like the old text message character limit didn't stop people from just sending multiple texts in a row. Twitter could just become a place for multi-tweet rants, where the self-obsessed can obsess even more.
Our best hope may be in a truism kept by most humans: Talking to ourselves is kinda boring. "It's much easier to talk to myself on Facebook. Or just in a room alone. Or on the subway," says Fast Company columnist and avid tweeter Baratunde Thurston. He's never replied to himself, though. He doesn’t intend to start now.