Starting this week, everyone on Twitter now has the option to “hide replies” on their tweets, a feature the company started testing earlier this year and one of several new ideas to improve the state of conversation on the platform. There are other, bolder ideas potentially coming down the pike, too: an option to disable retweets, remove an @ tag, or disallow people to @ mention them without permission.
Collectively, the moves represent Twitter’s latest thinking around “healthy conversations,” an initiative it launched in March 2018. “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” Jack Dorsey, the company’s CEO, wrote at the time. Starting then, he said, Twitter would begin “building a systemic framework to help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking.”
For Twitter, much of this work began with undoing its own missteps. Chris Wetherell, the developer who created Twitter's retweet function in 2009, has since compared it to handing “a four-year-old a loaded weapon.” Twitter’s cofounder, Biz Stone, has called the Mentions tab—which “put the onus on users to block someone”—a mistake. For many of Twitter’s users, though, the product changes have felt painfully slow and underwhelming.
Take “hide replies.” The feature lets someone bury an individual reply to their tweet—like, say, a crude joke or a reply promoting an Ethereum scam. These replies get hidden for everyone, although they can still be seen by clicking “more replies.” In that sense, it’s more like batting away an annoying fly—it’s still buzzing around somewhere, even if it’s not directly in your ear. Twitter users also need to take action on a tweet-by-tweet basis, “which might seem easy at a small scale, but not so much when users are being massively dog-piled,” says Patrícia Rossini, who researches communications and social media at the University of Liverpool.
Rossini likens “hide replies” to marking an email as spam: good for one-off incidents, bad for problems at scale. For a reply that’s merely annoying, hiding might be enough. But for users who are being attacked, harassed, or otherwise targeted, it won’t do much to fix the problem. “I would also be curious to learn the extent to which hiding tweets prevent bystanders to click on them and read them, which could give us a better sense of whether the hiding feature improves conversational dynamics,” says Rossini. “My initial sense is that it may help small-scale conversations, but is likely not enough for more serious cases of targeted attacks and harassment.”
Harassment and abuse are major problems on Twitter—that’s part of the reason the platform started the work on “healthy conversations” in the first place. Women and minorities are particularly affected. One study last year found that an abusive tweet was sent to a woman roughly every 30 seconds. (The study was based on crowdsourced data from a “troll patrol,” since Twitter does not break down reports of abuse by victim categories.) Recently, Twitter has refined its “quality filters” to weed out toxic tweets and given users more options to report abuse.
“Hide replies” represents a gentler approach, geared toward steering conversations in less toxic directions. Twitter says that in Canada, where it tested the feature initially, 27 percent of people said they “would reconsider how they interact with others in the future” after they received notice that their replies had been hidden by the original tweeter. “One small step for Twitter, but one big step for Twitterkind,” wrote Dantley Davis, Twitter’s VP of design and research, when the company expanded the test in September. “Trolls beware!”