Direct messages: More trouble than they're worth?
As noted above, Twitter's direct message feature lets you send a private message to another Twitter user, but only if that person is following you. Bennett thinks the DM mechanism isn't well thought out. "The direct message system is rubbish -- it needs things like built-in search, marking, mass deletion, filters, etc.," he says. But DMs are an annoyance for another reason: They have become an attack vector for spammers.
Twit nit tweet: Twitter's DM feature: clunky, replicates IM and e-mail, attracts spam. Not much to love here.
How is this possible? Since you must follow a user to be able to receive a direct message from them, anyone who doesn't follow other people -- or who is extremely careful about who they follow -- won't be bothered by DM spam. But it's easy to follow the wrong person; when someone follows you, it's natural to follow them back.
What's more, many users who attract a large number of followers have turned to third-party services such as SocialOomph to automatically follow new followers. Such users are particularly vulnerable to DM abuse, and not just from commercial spammers. Otherwise normal Twitter users who use tools like SocialOomph to send automated DMs to greet new followers -- and include self-promotional links, jargon and so on -- are also a growing problem, says Fitton.
Wallace says her incoming DMs are now mostly spam. What's worse, she says, Twitter doesn't provide a way to delete them en masse. "Auto DMs and spammers have outpaced the level of service provided by DMs, rendering them obsolete at best and an annoyance at worst," she says.
As always in the Twitterverse, there are some fixes. SocialToo, for example, not only allows you to automatically follow accounts that follow you, but also lets you automatically unfollow accounts that exhibit spammer-like behavior. It also lets you block automated DMs, filtering them through a set of customizable rules.
Still, Twitter could make DMs work better by allowing users to filter incoming messages, mark offending DMs as spam and delete them in batches. Fitton thinks the whole DM model of requiring a subject to follow you before you can send them a message is flawed. "Why not permit DMs by default?" she asks. Then users could exclude those who send DM spam or other unwanted messages.
But the DM channel wouldn't be needed at all if Twitter allowed users to send private @replies. "Maybe you ought to have a checkbox that says 'private' if you don't want your tweet to appear in the public timeline," Fitton says. It's a minor change, she says, that would lead to a cleaner design.
No conversation threads for @replies
A cleaner design is exactly what's needed when it comes to management of @reply messages. Twitter allows you to reply to any tweet with an @reply, but reply messages don't link back to the original message. With no conversation threading, tracking who said what in a string of @reply messages can get confusing fast.
Twit nit tweet: Say @what? Twitter's inability to link @replies back to the original tweet can leave users wondering what the conversation is about.
"Sometimes by the time someone replies to me on Twitter, I've forgotten what I originally said," says Lisa Hoover, a blogger who has written for Computerworld.
Twitter competitors such as Jaiku and Identi.ca do offer threaded conversations. But on Twitter, if you want to get a consolidated view of your tweet streams you need to go through a service such as FriendFeed. Message threading is a basic feature that Twitter should incorporate into its own platform.
Weak follower management
As with groups, the lack of good follower management features has led to a bounty of third-party tools designed to fill in the gaps.
How do you identify who's following you and whether you should follow them back? With the tools that Twitter provides, that's not easy. Twitter simply lists followers in the order they were added, along with their last tweet. You can't sort that list differently, and to see more detail, such as each person's bio, number of followers, recent activity and other statistics, you must click through to each user's Twitter home page. It's cumbersome, especially when you're managing a large group of followers.
"The lack of decent follower tools has spawned a cottage industry in itself," Wallace says. Web sites like My Tweeple, Mr. Tweet and Buzzom make searching and managing follower and following lists easier.
Twit nit tweet: Managing a long Twitter follower list is not fun. The ability to sort using different criteria and more profile detail would be helpful.
Michaela Vorvoreanu is an assistant professor at Purdue University's College of Technology who studies the impact of Twitter and other communications technologies on the culture and society -- and is a frequent Twitterer herself. She'd like to see Twitter do better in this area.
"I'd like to be able to sort through the list of followers by various criteria, such as alphabetical order, Twitter activity, date joined, date followed, whether they're following me back, etc.," she says. She'd also like to see detailed information in the notification e-mail when someone follows her, along with an embedded "follow" button. For now, however, she uses Topify and says that it "does most of those things for me."