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A Brief History Of Open Letters To Twitter

Everyone has always known exactly what Twitter has needed to do. Immediately! Here's proof.

A Brief History Of Open Letters To Twitter
[Photo: Flickr user Alexandre Duret-Lutz]

Slate's David Auerbach has a plan to fix Twitter. In brief, it involves making it a more welcoming place and minimizing harassment by shielding users from tweets other than those sent by people they've chosen to follow. He outlines his strategy—soberly headlined "What Twitter Must Do"—in the form of an open letter to Twitter itself:

Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook share two purposes: They are information networks for high-content sharing and friendship networks for low-content social interaction. By defaulting to mostly public information sharing, Twitter has become a great information network but a horrendous friendship network. Currently, the friendship network is the price you pay for the information network. But restricting information sharing to reduce trolling will simply turn you into a second-rate Facebook and doom you for certain. Rather, Twitter, you need focus on information sharing while you gut and rebuild the friendship network, devolving moderation down to individual users.

That’s why you need to rethink yourself from the ground up. Start with an information network of tweets and retweets but no replies or mentions as we currently know them. Twitter users would see what their friends post and retweet and subscribe to people they find through retweets or hashtags. Already, things are a lot better. You don’t encounter anyone beyond the filter of your list of friends unless you search a hashtag. If a hashtag fills up with crap, you avoid it.

By helpfully providing advice directly to Twitter in the form of an open letter, Auerbach is following a tradition that's been around nearly as long as Twitter has been a household name.

What leads people to write these letters? Well, more than any other modern kingpin of the web, Twitter has never reached a point of happy equilibrium in which everyone agrees it's in fantastic shape. A sizable chunk of its users have always been convinced that it needs to to change—and much of the remaining chunk has consisted of people who are afraid that Twitter will change.

Moreover, the service's intensely personal feel leads many people to conclude that all Twitter needs to do to thrive is to make people like themselves happier—despite the fact that Twitter is radically different things to different users.

Herewith, some earlier letters to Twitter, dating back to the era when it was a privately owned startup with 18 million users, 30 employees, and no advertising whatsoever.

April 2009: "An Open Letter to Twitter"

In an early example of the Twitter open letter, Web developer Arthur Kay tells Twitter that it’s fundamentally annoying, but—unlike many who would follow—fails to provide any advice on the matter:

What am I doing right now (in 140 characters or less)? I’m wondering why anyone cares! If anyone really wants to know what I’m doing, they should call me. If they don’t have my phone number, then I’m worried they might be stalking me.

Seriously, if anyone has time to wonder what Shaq is doing right this minute then they really need to get a life. If he’s doing something worthwhile, it will make the news.

Twitter—you need to stop this madness. Your friends are encouraging people to share intimate personal information about themselves with the entire world. . . and I’m really getting sick of companies and [newscasters] saying "Check us out on Twitter."

June 2010: "Get Shorter: An Open Letter to Twitter"

In no less an august venue than The New Yorker, Blake Eskin gripes that the http:// in links eats up too many precious characters, and should be replaced with a single symbol:

Winstead proposed a colon (e.g. :tmky.us/3191); Kottke suggested % or //; another correspondent floated ^ or =>. My own preference would be for !, although I discovered, on a site devoted to microsyntax, proposals that the exclamation point should be reserved for "urgent or time-sensitive posts" or even as a Tweet 911, for posts "associated with a specific named disaster or emergency." In either case, it will have to be reclaimed from bubbly teens, soccer fans, and publicists.

July 2011: "Dear Twitter: Don't Change the 140-Character Limit"

Responding to Farhad Manjoo's call for Twitter to double its 140-character limit, my friend Lance Ulanoff contends that longer tweets would only encourage people to hold conversations on Twitter—and that if people want to converse, they should use something like Google+:

In the case of conversations on Twitter, they work differently. Usually someone posts something interesting and someone responds. The response doesn't have the original tweet, just a little notation that it was "in reply to…," which links to the original tweet. These conversations can go on for a while and sometimes expand to a number of Twitter members. The person outside the conversation will see a random post from this Twitter conversation in their feed and have absolutely no idea what it's about. Conversation tends to clutter up Twitter and make it far less useful. This is not to say that I do not use Twitter for crowdsourcing. I ask concise questions and get concise answers.

People who want to have conversations online have numerous options, including old-school forums, Facebook, and threaded comments on various websites. Google+ is the newest and easily most exciting one. I'm using it to say more and collect richer thoughts from all Google+ conversation participants. Oddly, I sometimes have to remind myself that I can post and respond in more than 140 characters (I see other people with this problem, too).

December 2011: "Twitter, How About Liberating Some Usernames?"

In a post which uses the phrase "An Open Letter to Twitter" as as subheading, the Royal Pingdom blog argues that too many of the good Twitter user names are in limbo, registered to people who don’t use them:

It doesn’t have to be complicated. If a Twitter account is completely unused for six months, go ahead and delete it. If you must, send an email to users before you do it and give them a week to sign in to avoid having the account deleted.

Granted, you’ll have fewer "registered users" to boast about if you start deleting unused accounts, but this is the right thing to do. Your users will have a more positive introduction to your service and a better user experience.

Photo: Flickr user R. Nial Bradshaw

February 2012: "Dear Twitter: Don't Mean to be Rude, But Maybe It's time to Hire a Full-Time Product Guy"

Eleven months after Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey's return to the company as chairman—splitting his time with his new startup Square—Business Insider founder Henry Blodgett concludes that the company's problems are too big to be solved on a part-time basis:

So, how's Jack doing?

Well, officially, everyone raves about the amazing leadership and influence Jack has had at Twitter, and everyone gushed all over some of the recent product innovations Twitter announced under Jack's leadership.

But I have to say this.

As a massively heavy Twitter user, the recent changes that Twitter has made to my Twitter app—TweetDeck—have been all for the worse.

My old TweetDeck for iPhone stopped working, so I had to upgrade to the new one. Yes, it's buggy and crash-prone, but the old version had that problem, too. But it's the "improvements" to the new version of the TweetDeck app that bug me the most. I won't chronicle them here, but suffice it to say that I don't like them. The new version of TweetDeck is now less intuitive and harder to use than the old one. And I'm holding Jack responsible for that.

October 2013: "An Open Letter to Twitter"

Speaking on behalf of ad-deleting software Adblock Plus, Ben Williams urges Twitter to come up with ads which ABP users won't want to block:

...your users might not be too thrilled about what’s in store—and that will inevitably send that many more of them running to Adblock Plus. Our numbers are swelling even if advertising revenue is growing as well. Over 200 million people have downloaded our software, and last week alone we had over 1.5 million downloads. Your current ad offerings are actually not far from what we’d consider non-annoying (see more below)—but the idea of a fundamentally changed Twitter, now with ads round every corner, may direct users to Adblock Plus for no other reason than that they want their "old" Twitter back.

So why not work together? We would like to partner with you to engineer acceptable, nonintrusive advertising that would conform to our guidelines and make it to our whitelist. That’s right, we want you to advertise. But we want you to do it responsibly, by adhering to our Acceptable Ads guidelines.

March 2015: "An Open Letter to Twitter HQ"

Semil, a contributor to a site called Openlttr, basically informs Twitter that it's way too stagnant, and should consider new features such as Klout-like reputation scores:

Reward engagement with reputation—maybe similar to an eBay score or forum rating mechanism. The higher your number the more likely your engagement will be noticed via a highlight, notification, or display in streams. Or perhaps create a perks system for the highly active users. Enticing people to engage will reward content producers for their time and effort with a simple retweet or comment, and it will go a long way.

Another perk here would be to allow people to select what level of reputation score they want to see on a daily basis or maybe have highlighted to them with a notification.

August 2015: "An Open Letter to Twitter: It's Time to Advertise"

Ad man Rick Webb declares that Twitter’s salvation involves goosing its user base by spending at least $100 million on…advertising itself!


Twitter has advertised on TV before, or at least made TV ads. There’s another one I remember seeing that was a great sort of anthemic, inspirational piece. I can’t find it online anymore. But it was really good. Like many people who dip their toes into broadcast, it was too little media time, and maybe too soon. They used some people they knew personally (I hear), and didn’t really get some hardcore, outside genius experts. By the way, that’s an amazing, great thing about the advertising industry — it’s doesn’t cost any more to hire a legend such as Lee Clow as it does anyone else. God bless good old American competition, amirite?

But Twitter is a different company now. They have the money, they have the product, they have the story, they have the mainstream potential. In advertising, that’s exactly when wide-spread, go-big TV advertising becomes something you should seriously consider.

January 2016: "Dear Twitter: Please Don't Do It"

Alarmed by the latest round of rumors that Twitter might allow people to share text in way-bigger-than-140-character chunks, marketer David Meerman Scott thinks that the status quo is fine:

At its core, Twitter is a real-time medium. It’s for a quick thought or a fast-paced conversation. Hashtags allow us to monitor what is #trending.

Twitter is not ideal for creating original long-form content, although it is a tool for sharing what exists on other sites and networks.

Reading through all of these, I'm struck by their confident tone. Also obvious: Today's Twitter doesn't seem to have been shaped in the least by the sort of advice doled out in open letters, with the possible exception that it continues to cling to the 140-character limit, at least for now.

And you know what? If Twitter had implemented most of the recommendations which people dispense in these letters, I bet that its current health wouldn't be radically different one way or another. And no matter what, the letters would have kept on coming. That's part of what makes Twitter, well, Twitter.

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