Twitter announced today that it’s building a new feature that would let users hide replies to their tweets. The feature, noticed first by expert software unpacker Jane Manchun Wong, would bring a drastic change to how users control the conversations they create on the platform. It wouldn’t let a user permanently hide replies, but it would make those replies more difficult to see in the event the original conversation starter wanted to discourage bad-faith or otherwise unpleasant discussions around their tweets.
“People who start interesting conversations on Twitter are really important to us, and we want to empower them to make the conversations they start as healthy as possible by giving them some control,” explains Michelle Yasmeen Haq, a senior product manager at the company who discussed the feature publicly on her personal Twitter account late this afternoon. “We already see people trying keep their conversations healthy by using block, mute, and report, but these tools don’t always address the issue. Block and mute only change the experience of the blocker, and report only works for the content that violates our policies.”
1/8 Thanks to Jane and @MattNavarra for starting the conversation about the this feature we are developing! We wanted to provide a little more context on it. https://t.co/Ws2rJfa8sl— Michelle Yasmeen Haq (@thechelleshock) February 28, 2019
Essentially, the feature would let you tap the “share” icon on Twitter and choose “hide Tweet” to close down replies. From there, other users would have to click through to see the replies on a tweet, instead of seeing them automatically. There also appears to be an option to view all tweets you’ve hidden in the past and manually unhide them if you want to reopen replies at some point in the future.
By giving users the option to hide replies, Yasmeen Haq thinks Twitter can “balance the product experience between the original Tweeter and the audience.” Additionally, the “transparency of the hidden replies would allow the community to notice and call out situations where people use the feature to hide content they disagree with.” In other words, by hiding replies, you could send a signal to your audience that the conversation has become toxic or sidetracked, in a way similar to disabling comments on YouTube or taking similar actions on Reddit and other forums.
Of course, this feature might prove a double-edged sword for Twitter. While there are plenty of times when conversations beneath a controversial tweet become abusive and begin to involve harassment and other personal attacks, there are also instances where replying to a tweet has become a vital way of holding powerful people, like politicians, accountable. The “Twitter ratio,” as we’ve come to describe those times when a tweet earns many more replies than likes and retweets, is one way a large, public audience on Twitter can exercise critique and dissatisfaction.
It’s typically wielded against public officials who make an egregious remark, or people who have otherwise committed some online faux pas that Twitter users then gleefully point out using a reply. In some cases, however, the ratio can be a product of harassment campaigns that target innocuous tweets with unrelated criticism, as part of a broader effort to make someone’s experience on Twitter miserable.
Twitter is trying to give users more control over the conversations around their tweets
Perhaps it’s this kind of pile-on behavior, whether it’s being used by progressives online or by trolls and harassers, that Twitter no longer wants to abet through its product design. The company has released a number of new features and tools over the years that let you tailor your personal Twitter experience. You can mute certain words, customize your notification feed so you only see people follow, and make it so blocked accounts never even show up in search results.
Twitter has also in recent years became more of an arbiter of the public space it oversees, by proactively hiding sensitive content and filtering out conversations from accounts known for being inflammatory and abusive. Just yesterday, the company banned notable far-right conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl, after the Trump supporter actively bragged about using fake accounts to sway public opinion during the 2020 US election. Of course, these actions have led to accusations that Twitter leadership is biased against conservatives.
It’s unclear how this feature will be received by Twitter’s most ardent users. It’s easy to see a world where hiding your Twitter replies does become the equivalent of turning off comments on YouTube, a move that, while ostensibly useful for combating harassment, has come to be seen by the YouTube community as a defensive and embarrassing maneuver meant to quash criticism and avoid responsibility. It’s also unsettling to think of public officials and other people in positions of power wielding the feature as a way to paint certain comments or statements made on Twitter as positive, when in fact large swaths of the public could be condemning the speech down in the hidden replies.
That said, Twitter has a limited number of tools in its arsenal with which it can force people to stop being terrible to one another online. By letting you hide replies, the company is handing of those valuable tools to its users and hoping they exercise it with caution and care, and also as a way to make Twitter a more nourishing and interesting place and less an unpleasant, abuse-filled environment. Like most aspects of Twitter, however, the feature’s use will reflect the attitudes of its users, whether that means it ultimately results in a positive change to conversation on the platform — or a negative one.