Fiddling with user timelines: A wrong turn for Twitter?

As social web services proliferate, I’m finding Twitter, my first love, the only one that’s truly become a natural feature of daily life.

New pretenders feel fun and flashy at the outset. But, so far, most soon begin to feel like they are up to something, something other than me, my friends and our conversations. To paraphrase the adage about free services: I end up feeling like the product.

Dave Winer wrote earlier this month that Twitter should generate revenue by licensing our @usernames to us. I said, hell yeah! I would pay a significant annual license fee to keep @wac6 locked up.

There are so many other ways that Twitter could monetize. Alternatively, there are billionaire philanthropists who could do the world the greatest good by buying Twitter and making it the most important democratic information utility. (Which it arguably now is.)

That’s why I was baffled by the latest video from Twitter, talking about ways to promote small businesses on the social networking site. How much should this video concern me? Might it be a parody?


The brand stewards at Twitter, unlike those at Facebook, could not really be this un-cool, no?

William Carleton

Get these quotes from the video:

  • “You don’t write anything new. Twitter simply puts your best tweets in front of more of the right people at the right time.”
  • “You only pay when someone follows your account, or engages with your promoted tweet.”
  • “You determine the limit of how much you want to spend per day, and how much you want to spend per new follower or engagement. So there are never any surprises.”

They say they will take the ads mobile, too. Same as what Facebook has said in its filing for a public offering.

I guess I don’t mind if Twitter makes a tiny corner of Twitter more like Facebook, as long as I don’t have to go there any more than I have to go to the mall. It’s a big Twittersphere. Let the free riders have their commercials. But don’t mess with my timeline or my tweeple. Don’t sell access to me. Let me pay!

My daughter, observing me listen to the video over and over last night in an effort to transcribe the quotes correctly, remarked: “I thought Twitter was just for people to talk to each other. I thought that was what made it slightly less irritating than Facebook.”

Out of the mouths of 23 years olds.

Attorney William Carleton is a member of McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren PLLC, a Seattle law firm. He works with startups and emerging tech companies, their founders and investors. He posts regularly about tech-related legal issues on his blog.

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    I get that people need to make money and I don’t have too much a problem with the promoted users as it’s off to the side and I can ignore it.

    I have a serious problem with promoted tweets though. I view my timeline as mine in terms of what’s in there. I find it obnoxious beyond words to find stuff in there from people I don’t follow. Even more so when it’s ham-handed advertising copy “Try the new widget from WidgetCo”.

    I have flagged accounts I see promoted in my stream for spam. I’ve also done replies to get them to pay for the interaction and call them out as a spammer. I certainly don’t buy whatever’s being advertised.

    So, promoted tweets, at least from my point of view, not a smart thing for businesses to use.

    And not a smart thing for Twitter either. It’s one reason I increasingly barely use Twitter. Another is that they’ve made bulk management of who you follow forbidden. I don’t want to waste time manually managing hundreds of people I follow to make Twitter actually usable.Personally, I think they’re on their way out. They’re making bad decisions and seem to be running into a dead end in terms of their business model. There was a rumor about Apple buying them and, while not true, I think the fact that it popped up indicates what people think is in store for them.

    • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

      Christopher, I’m totally with you on the first four paragraphs of your comment. In fact, I think you stated the case better than I did.

      But, unlike you, I lately use Twitter more and more, not less. One factor is probably that my eldest son, Dan Carleton, a kick-ass engineer, wrote a script for me that takes promoted tweets out of my timeline. Talk about sweet. It keeps breaking, because Twitter keeps changing things, but Dan comes back and fixes it. So I don’t have to see the damn ads in my timeline. What you said, “obnoxious beyond words,” exactly.

      If they start cluttering the mobile experience with this crap, though, they really could ruin Twitter for me, too.

      • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

        You are lucky! That’s a handy tool there. Maybe he could sell it?

        Like I said, the other factor for me is managing who I follow is a nightmare. I used to follow several hundred people and wanted to tidy them into lists so I could actually see what’s going on. But you can do bulk management by their design (tools are specifically prohibited from that by terms of use).In a way, I think this last is a sign they’re in trouble. They’ve intentionally made the platform unusable in my opinion.

      • Daniel Carleton

        Thanks for the props, Dad. =)

        I realized that there’s a much more elegant way to do this by using CSS overrides.  Here’s a Chrome plugin that makes it easy:

        https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/fjnbnpbmkenffdnngjfgmeleoegfcffe

        It looks like there’s an analog to userscripts.org for CSS styles called userstyles.org.  I created an entry there with the appropriate stylesheet:

        http://userstyles.org/styles/63333/hide-all-twitter-promoted-content?r=1333139395

        Caveat is that some slight padding might be left behind in the tweet stream, but there should be no lag in hiding new items brought in after initial page load!

        • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

          My Son, you rock!

          Sent from my Motorola ATRIX™ 4G on AT&T

          —–Original message—–

  • http://www.justjason.com/ justjason

    It’s right of you to feel like the product. To think otherwise would make you delusional. Whether its Facebook, Twitter, Google, whatever, their mission is to package you up and sell you. I could be outraged that as I’m typing this I’m staring at a sponsered post about the “Special Discount for Geekwire Readers” for Cloud Fair, which is far more distracting than that of a promoted tweet on Twitter. But I’m not. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, it’s an ad. It’s the world we live. It’s the world we’ve been living in since advertising began. To be honest, there are times when the promoted tweet on Twitter is more interesting than the nonsense tweeted by the people I follow.

    • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

      Thanks for your comment. I think we should expect more from social media. The commercial web itself might work better, were it free of advertising. There was a time when people threw garbage out of windows onto the streets. We don’t put up with that today.

  • Anonymous

    William, very well written. Thanks for sharing. Keep the posts coming.

    • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

      Thank you for the kind words and the encouragement. I love writing and it’s oh so satisfying to feel a community building around the blogging.