I have a twitter problem. It’s not addiction, despite recently breaking the 3,000 tweet barrier, nor is it that I keep seeing the Fail Whale (not seen him for a while, and miss the old non-fish). It’s the increasing number of gaps in conversations. At times I’m finding it like ambient networking with Norman Collier.

On twitter you only receive tweets (messages) from people who you are following — almost. In order to make sure you can be alerted to things said directly to you there are what are called “@ replies”. If someone starts a tweet with @bounder (bounder is my username), then I’ll get it no matter if I’m following them or not (the potential of this for SPAM hasn’t quite been used yet).

But what of @ replies sent from your contacts to other people? Twitter offers three settings for this:


  • You can get “all @ replies” — every tweet from all the people you’re following.
  • You can get “@ replies to the people I’m following” — where you get other people’s @ replies only if you’re following both the person who sent it AND the person who it’s been sent to.
  • You can get “no @ replies” — which means you get your own @ replies, but never see anything people you’re following say directly to any other twitter user.

“@ replies to the people I’m following” works well for individual messages (and is the default on twitter). The problem comes when conversations take place between more than one person. Let’s try this scenario:

  • Alice is following Bob
  • Bob is following Alice and Carl
  • Carl is following Alice and Bob
  • Alice tweets “I like cats” (Bob and Carl both see this)
  • Bob tweets “@Alice I like cats too” (Alice and Carl both see this)
  • Carl tweets “@Bob @Alice I prefer dogs” (Only Bob sees this).
  • Bob tweets “@Carl @Alice dogs are good too” (Only Carl sees this)

This is a conversation, but because of the way @ replies work (the @username needs to be at the front) Alice is missing a good chunk of it. It’s surely a mistake because if Carl and Bob had tweeted:

  • Carl tweets “@Alice @Bob I prefer dogs”
  • Bob tweets “@Alice @Bob dogs are good too”

All three people have been involved in all of the conversation.

But why doesn’t Alice just follow Carl? Well maybe Carl tweets about his dog grooming business too much, or maybe he pushes his blog posts automatically to twitter and Alice doesn’t like that, or maybe Alice and Carl just haven’t met yet (even virtually). There’s no easy way for anyone to know that the other people aren’t seeing all that you see.

This could be solved by twitter treating all @usernames contained anywhere in the text of a tweet as an @ reply.


Conversations spiral amongst a number of people and the tendency is just to reply to the last thing someone said. Encouraged, compounded, by the 140 character limit and the length of the usernames — if you attempt to reply to more than one person you quickly run out of characters. It’s not likely that Carl will start his message with “@Bob @Alice @Derek @Earl”.

So what to do?

Twitter or a tool could implement some kind of conversation tracking algorithm — based, say, on friends’ and friends’ of friends tweets. You could get messages containing similar words or subjects that you’ve tweeted, from people who the people you are following are following for a certain time after your last tweet with those words.

Or maybe the ability to quickly create ad-hoc groups — twhirl or a similar desktop service could do that, but it would rely on everyone using the same tool (or a collaboration between tools).

But I’m starting to think that something needs to be done, I’m getting these conversation gaps more and more regularly. As networks expand and you intersect with more people who don’t have similar contact lists to you it will happen more — now’s the time to think about it before twitter does really become what its critics claim it is — people randomly howling stuff at a crowd who can’t cope with everything they hear.

Has anyone got a solution?

Update 1 – Replies are now mentions

On 30th March, Twitter announced that they had changed the ‘replies’ tab to show both the traditional @replies, but also include tweets that contained @yourusername, even if they weren’t at the start of the tweet (a ‘mention’). Many Twitter clients already did this, but now Twitter had caught up. http://blog.twitter.com/2009/03/replies-are-now-mentions.html

Update 2 – Twitter have removed the @ reply notification options
On 12th May, Twitter announced that users no longer have a choice of the 3 @reply notification options because they are now using the original default “@ replies to the people I’m following” for all users. http://blog.twitter.com/2009/05/small-settings-update.html

This update is affecting people in two ways. The main way being that some people found the “all @ replies” option really useful for discovering new and interesting people on Twitter. A way of meeting your friends’ friends, if you like.

The second, perhaps more damaging consequence in the long run, is that some people have tried to come up with a hack to avoid this change, by putting an extra character before the @, for example “2 @bounder I like cats”. This means that everyone sees that tweet. This works for the people who want to see “all @ replies” but does not work for those that had chosen to filter them out with the previous “@ replies to the people I’m following” option. Many people used this option, because seeing all @ replies makes Twitter unmanageable for them. So if the “all @ replies” Twitter users were to continue down the route of using this hack, it will make Twitter unusable for the “@ replies to the people I’m following” people.