Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Twitter’s “Who to follow” Feature, aka WTF

Twitter is currently testing a new feature called “Who to follow” (henceforth referred by its unfortunate acronym, WTF). When I log in there’s a box on the main page that suggests two users for me to follow. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly what Facebook does.

The purpose of a test like this is to gather feedback, so here’s some feedback. (The usual caveats apply: I don’t work at Twitter, I don’t know the specifics of their technology or the requirements for this project, and I may be grumpy from the cold I’ve had all week.)

I hate it. It’s poorly named, poorly placed, and poorly implemented.

  • Poorly Named

    “Who to follow” is a command. It’s like saying “Do This Now.” People don’t like suggestions phrased as commands. So why not call it something like: “Suggested Twitterers” or “You Might Like”?

    It’s important to understand the emotions you’re triggering in the user. Human brains have evolved to recognize and react to faces. Showing the faces of people you know, along with command language, can create dissonance. It’s as if the person is giving you the command. That’s one of the reasons people are reacting so strongly.

  • Poorly Placed

    The location of information on a page offers insight into the company’s priorities. In this case, WTF appears on the right side of the page, above the main Twitter navigation (@replies, Direct Messages, Favorites, Retweets, and Search). This location implies that WTF is more important than the rest of those things. I disagree. It should be below the main navigation, with the rest of the optional items (Saved Searches, Lists, Trending, and Following).

    Speaking of those optional items, all of them can be toggled into a closed/minimized state that shows only the title of the section and not the content. But WTF does not get this toggle. Why? Adding the toggle would provide a pressure-release valve for members like me who don’t like it, while still making it available for those who do. Twitter’s designers clearly know this – a toggle is available for every other sidebar item outside of the main navigation – so the fact that it’s not implemented for WTF is perplexing.

    The only rationale for its placement, as far as I can tell, is that the top right corner is where it’s implemented on Facebook. But that’s not a good reason.

  • Poorly Implemented

    WTF routinely recommends people I’ve blocked, and as you know, I block liberally. It also suggests people I’d followed for a while and consciously decided to stop following (sometimes you can like a person and not like their tweets). So suggesting these people is unhelpful at best, aggravating at worst.

    Finally, it’s aimed at the wrong audience. I can see how a feature like this would be very helpful to new members, but I am not a new member. My first public tweet was four years ago (my account was private before that). Twitter knows this about me. A more elegant interface would be active in making suggestions to new users, but more passive with active users like me, who’ve shown they already know how to find and follow people.

All in all, Twitter’s WTF is a great case study on why a feature that works well on Facebook cannot simply be copied and placed into another social context. Facebook is all about fastidious friend list maintenance – that’s the basic element there. Twitter is about … something else. The relationships are part of it, sure, but there’s more afoot. That’s why I like it.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence of the feature, I’m just critiquing its implementation. Having a steady stream of new inputs is how community systems avoid groupthink. So the system should encourage users to follow more/different people. It should just be done as an optional suggestion, with more smarts behind it, in a place that’s equivalent to its value to the user. In other words, it should be designed to feel like Twitter. As it stands now, it feels like a piece of Facebook, grafted on to Twitter.

I should also say, I feel for the Twitter design team. They’re tinkering with a speeding train with a billion passengers that’s laying track as it goes. And all the passengers have bullhorns. It’s a tough gig and I want to see them succeed. I hope this post is taken as just a little piece of feedback from a longterm member with a pounding headache.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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