Whispering Tweets

Twitter / Mr Messina: !psst... I'm whispering...

As a preface to the post that I intend to write next, I wanted to quickly jot down an idea that I think would be useful for Twitter… it’s partly inspired by my own instinct towards openness and partly clarified by Lane Becker‘s comment about Twitter Groups (the topic of my next status):

Personally, I’m not particularly interested in being able to create groups of people I can send certain subsets of messages to. That kind of fine-grained privacy management stuff drives me crazy on sites like Vox. Maybe I’m old-skool, but it feels like people in that environment are all about what they’re hiding, not what they’re sharing, and I prefer sharing. Hiding inhibits usage and growth, and it’s lame like high school. Don’t do it.

Emphasis added.
So it’s interesting that Twitter went with a binary model of privacy — either you have it or you don’t. Sure, you can direct message folks, but in terms of your complete timeline, either the world knows what’s up with you or they don’t. This is certainly straightforward and easy to grok, but doesn’t really allow for a third option, which would be a form of conservative promiscuity: a very public timeline with support for statuses that can only be seen by your innermost circle (or even just yourself).

The first step would be to set up a “whisper circle” or “inner circle” that will receive your whispers. This leaves you free to maintain a public timeline while adding the ability to restrict at least some of what you’re doing to a small, and more intentional, audience.

N. B.: You would only get one “inner circle” to start. For real private messaging circles, you really should just use email or Pownce. As far as I’m concerned, use the best tool for the job. This proposal is being made with the knowledge that many people would be interested in having personal d-lists or buddy sets like Pownce, but I’m defying that out of concern that overloading Twitter with this kind of management functionality would turn Twitter into something it’s not and wasn’t intended to be — which is a replacement for email in 140 character chunks.

I propose a very simple syntax for these kinds of messages: just begin your message with a bang (!) and then type your message as usual (yes, I do realize the irony in using the exclamation point for whispering). An example:

!psst... I'm whispering...

This status will only show up in the timelines of those friends who have been added to your inner circle. It will not show up in any public timelines. To reply to a whisper with a whisper, one of my friends could use either:

!@factoryjoe I can hear you. or @factoryjoe !I can hear you.

In either case, the use of an @reply to my whisper should not betray my confidence and would guarantee that I’d get the response in my replies. Like private tweets, only my inner circle at the time that I sent the message would be able to see my “whisper stream”.

I should also note that the name “whisper” comes from IRC lingo. It will make sense why I’m using both this syntax and this name in my next status on Twitter Channels — and, as an old Dodgeball user, the use of the bang to preface a message has been done before.

For now I’m curious about your thoughts on the usefulness of this proposal. Again, it’s incomplete without my next post, but as a simple protocol and as a way to bring back some folks who have gone private to living in the sunlight again, I thought I would offer it up for feedback.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

17 thoughts on “Whispering Tweets”

  1. I dunno. Using the @ sign for replying to one person seems so natural. It’s easy to wrap your head around. Adding exclamation points and pound signs seem like it’d be stretching it a bit much.

    Once Pownce releases their API, I’d love to see someone make an app where sending a status update is one of the options and when you do that it’d update Twitter. I could then use Pownce for sending messages and Twitter for pushing status updates but do it all from the same application.

  2. I think it’s a great idea, It’s like Direct messages on twitter that go to all of your friends. I felt since twitter started that something like this should be added but I wasn’t sure how. This seems like a great solution.

  3. I like the idea. But what i like even more is Pownce adding true mobile capabilities like Twitter and SMS. I’m not sure which will get done first – group messaging in twitter or those improvements to Pownce. Whichever service evolves into the other first wins imo.


  4. @william — why does one service have to win over the other? Shouldn’t you be able to pick and choose what works best? And let each service innovate in similar areas but with ultimately different experiences and use cases?

  5. i personally chose twitter over pownce precisely because of all the issues mentioned here. i see now benefit dividing my followers into subsets, and full mobile access is critical to me.

    your whisper is really just a “d” sent to all your friends (i assume this is the cross section of people who you follow, who follow you. why can’t we just add catch words “friends” and “followers” for you to D

    and what !! is the difference between “d factory joe i can hear you” and “@factory joe ! i can hear you”

    don’t add new syntax and new conventions when the old ones seem to accomplish the same thing perfectly well. let’s not clutter up the system, eh?

  6. @eric: I must not have been clear.

    My whisper is not simply a direct message sent to everyone; that would defeat the point. In my proposal, for those whose timelines are public, a whisper would allow you to send private tweets to a small number of your friends — not all of them. For example, you might have 50 people who you’re following, but maybe only 5 coworkers that you want to send messages to. Rather than send that message to your whole list of friends as direct messages, whispers would show up in those small group of friends’ timelines — not as direct messages.

    You’re right that there’s little different between “d factoryjoe i can hear you” and “@factoryjoe ! i can hear you”. The latter would be visible by the sender’s inner circle and the @recipient. But you’re right, that part of the proposal is probably unnecessary.

    My goal is not to clutter up the system or invent new conventions; again, the bang was taken from Dodgeball (in form if not in function). The intention of this proposal was to make it possible for people with public streams to be able to have some kind of private tweet functionality without going totally private… you’ll see in my next post how this functionality will make more sense in the context of Twitter channels.

  7. Because i just don’t see a need to use both if one does everything i’d like it to do? I dunno 😛 As more of these social sites come it is starting to become a full time job just to manage them. It’d be great if either Pownce OR Twitter could adopt the distinguishing features of the other so I didn’t have to update both.

  8. I like the implementation of the bang, but I’m struggling with the “inner circle” part. I can see how instances such as Lane mentioned in your link would be very useful, but using closed groups feels wrong. This is something that needs to be addressed though, and I’m glad to see it being discussed!

  9. Personally, I have always had my twitter status set to private, meaning I could never use any of the widgets or the like. My feeling was twitters were my message to friends, not followers or, strangers, or worse search engines and archives.

    I think a whisper option would be a *great* enhancement for to suppress the publicization (yep, I just made that word up) of the rare twitter that actually is just for my friends eyes only. Great idea!

    Regarding groups, I haven;t gone to the effort of setting them up on Pownce, but I could easily see having a group of indie rock friends, a group of electronica friends, a group of gag video friends. While I agree with Lane that exclusive circles of distribution are lame, my goal with Groups would be to not bore certain friends with certain topics. My biggest problem with Twitter are the all or nothing broadcast options and having to block people not because I don’t like them but they message too often about topics that do not hold my interest ….

    Whew, I seem to have some feelings on this topic ;>

  10. I’ll join the throng in agreeing that this idea has legs. The ability to effectively d an agreed circle of closer contacts is a compelling one.

    What this does, of course, is create the concept of a de facto group, pushing Twitter closer to Pownce in that regard. I don’t think I’ve had Pownce open for around three weeks now, as an aside.

    But if you create one group, it won’t be long until you want another or several more groups, so you’ll need to do this:

    !workmates my boss sucks
    !drinkingbuddies more beer
    !family home late, have dinner without me

    This introduces another layer of complexity where you need to assign your followers to discrete groupings. I’ve barely done this in the new Skype release with my hundred-odd contacts. I have similar volume on Twitter as I’m not as well-connected as Chris who has the problem of cherrypicking over 600 people he follows to add them to groups.

    Also, with your #something for tagging or grouping you might get:

    #barcampblock !workmates this session rocks

    So, to everyone at BarCampBlock in the Group of workmates gets the whisper.

    I think both are awesome ideas, I’m just not sure how manageable they are going to be.

  11. @Stephen: you’re going to like my next post. 😉

    I should have been more specific… you don’t preface a groupname with the bang… you simply preface your message and it goes to that inner circle. You only get ONE. This is not Pownce’s friend sets… this is not a heavy management feature. It does not follow that if you have one group of inner circle friends that you should be able to create more… that’s what channel tags are for. 😉

    More to come…

  12. I see where you come from, and I should probably wait for the next post regarding channels/tags/groups as well to tie up everything, but here is my impressions about the issue so far:

    The bang ! doesn’t feel very natural to me, it sounds more like a command prefix than a whisper, like in

    !rot13 foobar

    /msg can work, or even (if you don’t want to specify the recipients) /pvt or @friends (since twitter.com/friends is not an user) could work although it might be too much to type (the 1 character approach of the ! proposal wins here)

    some examples using this alternative:

    /msg @foo @bar can any of you guys bring me a coffee please?

    /pvt I am going to have ice cream with my kids on the place X, anyone wants to join?

    /msg [work] ok, who got my red stapler? this is not funny.

    I am currently using brackets with [pt-br] to my Portuguese tweets because it was what seemed right to me, like in a prefix on the subject of emails coming from different mailing lists, so this is what I use personally for grouping/tagging although the # is fine too…

  13. And of course, I should have read this post first before posting on your # post. ::headdesk::

    Carry on, carry on!

  14. What about just ‘sh message-receiver message text in here…’?

    or w recipient etc?

    Also, I love Fabricio’s [group] bracket idea. Although it’s two characters instead of one (@group) it’s different from the current @ reply

    Stephen’s # tagging idea’s a win too


  15. Sorry, not convinced.
    2 is binary, 3 is n.
    Twitter choose a binary privacy model. Your stream is protected or public, you tweet or DM. Crude, but simple and robust. Don’t like it, use email, pownce, twine, facebook, or make your own.
    Adding “just one more level” is breaking the binary model. Why whisper and shout? what about a little bit louder now? I have many social circles, some concentric, some overlapping, some matter and anti-matter. How do I whisper to one circle and not the others? Or am I whispering to the union? the intersection? do I really need a course in set theory to use twitter? This is too much for a simple-minded bear. If you can’t encode the full complexity of my social life, just leave it be, leave it binary, and let me deal with the complexities. Most people do it quite easily, using multiple accounts. The worst option is to attempt to capture social dynamics and end up with an autistic model.

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