TL;DR Twitter reading experience is extremely inflexible and not scalable, and the company discourages third-party developers from innovating in general-client niche. Twitter must significantly improve reading experience, or allow third-party developers more freedom.
In the first half of this month, I decided to perform an experiment. For at least two weeks I didn’t read my Twitter timeline. I only sent an occasional tweet or replied if necessary (the plan was to reply to mentions and to tweets surfaced by multiple searches that I read via RSS).
What could be the point of such a weird arrangement? Public tweets in general form a basis of three distinct activities - publishing, participating in a conversation and reading (Twitter as a whole also supports one-to-one private messaging via DMs).
Each activity delivers its own benefits at the cost of efforts to focus mentally and time. Reading is unique among them however because in a system based on following other accounts (where each account is free to publish anything they want), its signal-to-noise ratio is significantly lower than that of other activities.
Lower signal-to-noise ratio leads to higher costs (mental focus and time spent). As such, information I obtain via reading my Twitter timeline is relatively costly to me. The goal of the experiment was to see if I could replace Twitter timeline with a less costly way of obtaining the same information.
Turns out I couldn’t do it easily. Reading blogs as I always do, checking Techmeme and Hacker News kept me informed about the most important news but the color added by many folks I follow on Twitter, was missing.
This outcome was somewhat expected. But there was another thing that I realized during the experiment. Twitter the company stopped paying attention to reading experience (lists was their last innovation there). Even more worryingly, it is my understanding that they actively discourage third party developers from building general-purpose Twitter clients. This leaves their official stance - "river of updates" - to be the only way of consuming (reading) one's timeline.
Maybe “river of updates” is the best approach for many people (even though I doubt it). Maybe even for most. But saying it’s the best experience absolutely for all is a stretch. I want bookmarks (plural is not a typo), I want ability to sort my timeline by attributes other than time (for example - location, sender), I want “always on top” attribute, I want filters that could be shared between users - in addition to obvious creteria such as sender, time and location, I want advanced things such as current rate of my timeline (how many tweets per minute are appearing in my timeline now), send rate of sender (how many tweets per minute the sender sent on average last minute, last 5 minutes and last 15 minutes).
Granted, I don’t mind if Twitter itself doesn’t feel that these are features worthy of their official client. But if it’s the case, Twitter must not discourage third-party clients either. And if Twitter sticks to its guns on this, I hope it won’t be too long before it’s overtaken by someone else who will provide a better reading experience.