By Chris Lee
Reports surfaced in March 2014 that Twitter was considering getting rid of replies and hashtags, two of its most iconic characteristics. This move could have massive impacts on the way individuals and brands communicate over the social network.
Proposed changes would widen appeal
According to Eamonn Carey, Head of Digital at PR firm MHP Communications, Twitter is definitely feeling the pressure from Wall Street as it struggles to expand its plateauing user base. The distinct language of Twitter can be hard for new users to penetrate when they first join, and this could be where the idea to drop @ mentions and hashtags has come from.
“They will be surprisingly hard to get rid of though, and that’s what makes me think this is just Twitter flying a kite to see how people react,” Carey told NMK. “Hashtags and @ mentions were originally brought in by early adopters of Twitter, so phasing out this community-created system of communication could create serious unrest amongst loyal users. This in turn could affect the stability of the user base, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide this approach won’t work."
Ged Carroll, VP of Digital Services at PR agency Racepoint agrees that Twitter should consider all options.
“Twitter’s growth has slowed and anything that acts at reducing the slope of the on-ramp for new users makes sense to be considered,” he said, suggesting that Chinese microblog network WeChat’s design could be a good design approach to follow.
Carroll believes that getting rid of a hashtag would be trickier for two key reasons.
“It would be harder to recognise and follow a large scale conversation thread, which would adversely affect Twitter’s ambitions in social television and it would be counterintuitive given that Facebook has spread the hashtag language to a wider audience by supporting it,” he said. “Getting rid of hashtags would probably only make sense where people passively consume content streams, would this mean that Twitter may make more of lists and look to overhaul the feature for ease-of-use.”
Cultural shift for brands
According to Andy Headington, CEO of digital agency Adi.do, the main issue will be how any changes will impact brands and organisations which use the Twitter platform to communicate with their customer base and promote themselves.
“Hashtags are a great way of improving brand awareness as they allow brands to take part in real-time conversations as well as interact with an audience who are talking about a similar subject matter,” he added. “Whilst @ replies are integral to how a brand uses Twitter for customer service reasons, as they allow companies to have a one on one conversation with users. If these differentiators were to be removed it opens up questions on how brands will use Twitter, and how useful Twitter will be for them moving forward.”
Rowan Grace Evans, head of social media at consultancy Greenlight Digital, concluded that it is unlikely Twitter would do away with something so integral to its functionality, but that it is no surprise that the network is trying to streamline communications to allow for less user error.
“However, I feel the bigger message here could be related to content, and a way of Twitter better regulating the content that @replies and @mentions contain,” she said. “It is perhaps going the way of Facebook, where all brand content will need to meet certain criteria before being posted to the other user’s feed. If anything, I read this as a way of better targeting conversations on Twitter, rather than an attempt to narrow or restrict them.”