The Weird Allure of Stories about Hypothetical Twitter and Facebook Changes

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 - 03:46 PM

Yesterday, blogger Matthew Keys published the kind of nerdy exclusive that excites a small percentage of geeks (present company included). Twitter, Keys wrote, was going to add an “edit” button in the near future.

No one knows if the story is true. No other reporters have been able to corroborate it, and Keys is a controversial enough reporter that at least one editor refused to cover the story because Keys was the only source.

Still, people bit. The UK blog Digital Spy ran with the story. BusinessInsider hypothesized about the “Huge Implications For Brands” an edit button would raise. CNET, to its credit, called Twitter about the rumors.

Clearly there’s an appetite for whatever this genre of story is (boring sci-fi?). That appetite was also evident earlier this month, when The Huffington Post reported that a Facebook engineer had created a “Sympathize” button at some past company hack-a-thon. The same thing happened: a flood of stories about a very hypothetical change, reported as if it were coming any day now. 

The incentive to write these interesting-if-true stories is obvious. People read them. Plus, if the writer ends up being wrong, well, that’s sometime far off in the future, when everyone’s attention has wandered off.  But what’s the draw for the readers?

I think partly it’s that, unlike in the past, many of our shiny new things are handed to us with their limitations made explicit. The first thing you learn about Twitter, Vine, or Snapchat is what they can't do. No 141-character tweets, no 7-second Vines, no saving Snaps. And we’re human, which means we have these weirdly plodding imaginations that can’t help but fixate on the nearest, most obvious what-ifs.

The other thing, of course, is that these services do sometimes suddenly change. One of Twitter’s limitations was that you couldn’t publish photos. Then, one day, you could. And that change actually did have implications, for brands and for humans.

So, I don’t know. The formula for a post like this goes something like:

-Notice a behavior

-Cite a bunch of examples of it

-Yell at/Congratulate/Psychoanalyze the people responsible

I can’t stick the landing on this one because I’m genuinely ambivalent. When I look at the breathless flood of tweets about Twitter’s new edit button, it seems like a lot of silly noise. But I also sympathize. These stories rouse my silly curiosity too. We’re so much at the mercy of the people who run these platforms. They make sudden changes all the time, and we’re rarely warned beforehand. Maybe we talk in hypotheticals because it’s fun to imagine having some say in how things change.


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Comments [2]

Hey Matthew,

Thanks for your comment. I re-read both your piece and mine, and I still feel OK with my characterization of your reporting. But here's a link to the original piece, in case people want to judge for themselves.


Dec. 17 2013 05:23 PM

CNET "to its credit, called Twitter about the rumors," but only a few hours after they posted the same report that Business Insider ran with. And there's no way to know if they spoke with the same sources -- or even if they're sources were completely knowledgeable about the issue.

On The Media, though, got it completely wrong. The story says Twitter is *developing* the feature, it *does not* say that Twitter is going to roll out the feature. In fact, the story says:

"But the feature, if it is ever rolled out..."

There's a difference between someone saying that a feature is in development, and that a feature is being rolled out. This story says one thing; people automatically assumed another.

And CNET -- well, they don't seem to know what to report.

Dec. 17 2013 04:56 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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