Did you know Twitter hides some tweets, preventing you from eavesdropping?

Did you know Twitter hides some tweets from you?

You can still see them if you do a Twitter search, or look at someone’s Twitter page (e.g. twitter.com/username), or set up a Twitter client such as TweetDeck to show you everything. But you won’t see all of the tweets from people you follow in your stream at Twitter.com. Here’s why:

Ever find yourself eavesdropping because you suddenly heard a name you knew?

That’s how Twitter @ replies work.

If someone you follow starts tweeting with someone you don’t know (don’t follow) you won’t “hear” the conversation because Twitter will hide those tweets from you. (This only applies when they start the tweet with the other person’s username.)

If they tweet with someone you do know (do follow) Twitter will not hide the tweet from you. It will appear in your stream.

How replies work:

Imagine you are @You. You follow

  1. @Mom
  2. @Dad
  3. and @Boss

…and they all follow you.

  1. Neither @Mom or @Dad follow @Boss.
  2. @Boss doesn’t follow @Mom or @Dad.

So when you tweet

@Boss I’m going to be late for work today

Neither @Mom or @Dad will see it, even though they follow you. This is because you’re tweeting to someone they don’t know/don’t follow. If you tweet

@Mom Thanks for the delicious pie!

@Boss won’t see it, because although he follows you, he doesn’t follow @Mom. But @Dad will see it, because he follows both you and @Mom. And so your tweet could be seen as a clever reminder to @Dad to remember to thank @Mom :)

The most important problem to avoid

What if you want to tell people who don’t already know about @GreatTwitterUser how great they are? If you tweet:

@GreatTwitterUser Everyone should follow you!

…you’ve failed, because only people who already follow @GreatTwitterUser will see your tweet. Everyone who doesn’t follow them won’t see the tweet, because Twitter will hide your conversation from people that don’t follow you both.

TIP: Read “Win Friends And Influence People On Twitter In Just 5 Seconds A Day” to understand how powerful making public compliments can be.

What can you do?

If you want to have a semi-private conversation, start your tweet with the username of who you are chatting with. Then only people who follow both of you will see your tweets.

But…if you want everyone that follows you to see your tweet, the first character of the tweet has to be something else. Here’s a couple of common solutions for changing the semi-private tweet “@Friend, how are you today?” into a public tweet all your followers can see:

  1. .@Friend, how are you today?
  2. How are you today, @Friend ?

Both of these will be seen by all your followers. If you start with anything other than the @, your tweet will be seen by everyone. But it’s become common to simply add a “.” at the beginning when you want everyone to see your tweet.

Noise Filter? Privacy Protection? Discovery Limitation?

I’ve gotten some complaints for framing this as a privacy issue, because people see it in any one of up to four ways:

  1. Hiding tweets for privacy;
  2. Filtering out noise;
  3. Making discovery harder;
  4. Helping Twitter’s infrastructure run better.

When Twitter made this change to stop showing all tweets in 2007 they later explained (in response to complaints) that this was a necessary change, because their computer infrastructure couldn’t handle showing all the conversations.

Others considered conversations between people they didn’t both follow as “noise,” and so they called this change an “anti-noise” change. But since finding new people is sometimes called “discovery,” some other people complained that this change was an “anti-discovery” change.

But whichever way you look at it, it’s essential to know how it works!

Hide Your Chats From People That Don’t Want To See That

If you add a hashtag to a tweet, people that search for that hashtag will see your tweet, regardless of how you address it. But if you participate in hashtag chats, you may want to chat a lot without all your followers seeing your tweets.

You can use what you’ve learned in this blog post to hide tweets, by starting them with a username that none of the people that follow you also follow. If they don’t follow the username that you start your tweet with, they won’t see your tweet.

For that reason, I created the @HideChat twitter account for people to use to hide their chat tweets. You can learn more about it here.

6 thoughts on “Did you know Twitter hides some tweets, preventing you from eavesdropping?

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