What is Twitter? More than 14 years after the social media platform launched, that’s still a question the company spends a lot of time answering.
During a press briefing yesterday, for instance, executives spent about 20 minutes explaining Twitter’s mission (“To Serve The Public Conversation”) and its various shortcomings, of which there are many. People don’t feel safe tweeting. They feel intimidated. They don’t understand Twitter. Most people just lurk but remain in a passive mode.
“What was stopping people from transitioning from their passive observation to being more actively engaged?” said Twitter head of research Nikkia Reveillac. “What we learned when we talk to people is that tweeting and engaging in conversation can honestly be incredibly terrifying.”
The result is that Twitter is a platform dominated by a few people not afraid to share their unfiltered thoughts. According to a Pew study released in October, 10% of users produce 92% of all U.S. tweets.
How does one get these non-tweeters off the sidelines?
Twitter has been taking some gradual steps this year to lower the fear factor. In January, Twitter announced that people would be able to hide replies. Then in August, the company rolled out a new feature to choose who can reply to tweets to allow for more curated conversations.
“In order for us to truly serve this global conversation, we need to do better,” Reveillac said. “We need to expand the conversation to make it easier for everyone of all diverse perspectives to feel comfortable in participating in that conversation.”
Which brings us to the thing that’s being announced today: Fleets. All this deeply analytical context and research may be right on the money. But it’s also putting a fancy intellectual window dressing around a feature that essentially mimics Facebook Stories, which mimicked Instagram Stories, which copied Snapchat.
“This format might sound familiar to you,” said Twitter’s director of design Joshua Harris. “And it might seem like we’re a little late to the game on this. But we’ve been methodical and exploring the format and how it works for people on Twitter. And we realized through market tests and research that it makes sense for our platform.”
Harris said Fleets lowers the stakes for many users and makes them feel more comfortable jumping into conversations. Twitter has detected that a large number of users start writing tweets and then leave them in their draft folders and never come back to them. So Fleets, by being ephemeral, reduces the pressure. In theory.
How it works on Twitter is pretty similar to how it works on other platforms. Start writing a tweet, and then decide whether to share it to your timeline or to Fleets. If it’s the latter, it becomes essentially an image. Before sharing, users can add emojis or other text on top of it. In the coming months, Twitter will add more features like stickers, various creator tools, and live broadcasts.
The fleets of other users appear in circles above your timeline and only remain viewable for 24 hours. If you want to react or comment, those messages appear as direct messages to the creator of the fleet.
The company began testing Fleets in Brazil back in March and is confident enough in the results to turn them on worldwide.
“There are no public likes or retweets to worry about,” Harris said. “Whoever replies to my fleet does so privately through direct message and that sparks a private one-on-one conversation without me worrying about spamming my followers. We’ve tested this and we’ve learned that fleets help people feel more comfortable joining the conversation with their fleeting thoughts.”
Maybe. But during the press briefing, Harris was asked about the Achilles’ heel of this plan: screenshots. Yes, people will be able to take them and drag users at will. For now.
But wait, there’s more!
Twitter is working on other ways to make itself more accessible. Earlier this year, Twitter launched audio tweets for Apple iOS users, a project it insists is going well.
Now Twitter is looking to expand the use of audio. One concept under development and testing is sending audio direct messages, a feature the company insists many users have been requesting. Few details were shared.
Twitter staff product designer Maya Gold Patterson revealed a more ambitious product in the works: Audio Spaces. The product lets users create live chatrooms with other users.
“We imagined a live audio space to be a place where people could communicate directly with one other person or a group of people,” Patterson said. “We imagined these spaces to feel very intimate, very safe, where people can feel comfortable in conversation with the people that they want to. We’ve used this metaphor of a well-hosted dinner party. You don’t need to know everyone at the party to be comfortable there, or to have a good time. But everyone should feel comfortable sitting at the table.”
There’s no timeline for releasing Audio Spaces yet. Patterson said Twitter will begin testing it first with users who are likely to feel the most vulnerable on the platform.
“It’s critical that we get safety right,” she said. “We need to get that right in order for people to leverage live audio spaces in the way that we might imagine and in the ways that would be most helpful for them. So we’re going to do something a little different. We are going to launch this first experiment of Spaces to a very small group of people, a group of people who are disproportionately impacted by abuse and harm on the platform: Women and those from marginalized backgrounds. As a black woman, I have experienced countless times abuse and harassment online and on Twitter, unfortunately. And so it is a personal matter for me to get this right. And the team is interested in hearing first from this group of people on their feedback about audio spaces.”
Finally, Twitter senior product manager Christine Su hinted at tools and features the company is trying to develop to allow for “private apologies and forgiveness.”
“One of the things that we’re exploring for this next year is sometimes when you’re really emotional and losing control in the moment, it may take someone that you trust to take you aside and say, ‘Hey, that’s not cool. Take a breather.’” Su said. “So we’re exploring methods of private feedback on the platform as well as private apologies and forgiveness.”
So what would that look like?
“That may look like a notification,” she said. “That’s like a gentle, gentle elbowing from someone that you follow. Or it also may look like a nudge. I’m really excited to continue. But we’ve been methodical and exploring the format and how it works for people on Twitter. That’s a little preview of what’s to come so that we can build more empathy and more thoughtfulness on Twitter.”