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Changing a star to a heart won’t fix Twitter’s user growth problem

Every now and then social media has a total freakout over not that much. It happened today: At 10 a.m. ET Twitter killed its most divisive and confusing feature – the interactive star/favourite button – and replaced it with a heart-shaped "like" button. Neither of these buttons are very good at explaining themselves, but the move appears to a pretty hare-brained way to boost its slowing growth.

Immediately the Kraken was released from its undersea lair and tentacles of rage began enveloping the Twittersphere. In less than two hours more than 190,000 tweets had mentioned "Likes" (although that wasn't the hottest trend; thanks Donald Trump). Most of the outrage seemed to be a variation on the theme of "I DISLIKE THIS" the kind of easy one-liner you might have rewarded with a "like," though not an actual retweet.

Twitter shared a goofy GIF where it postulated all the sentiments a heart might equal: wow, aww, high five, stay strong, yes!, congrats, hugs, lol, adorbs. In other words, it is a cipher for positivity, but perhaps a little unspecific. The fav button it replaced was similarly emotionally opaque (though perhaps we can agree less effusive than a big, juicy red heart), but because a star is also used in some browsers to bookmark links, many used it to store tweets they liked.

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Users can still see a list of any public Twitter user's likes/favs, and it's usually easy to identify who was handing out favourites to friends, who is using "likes" to be creepy, and who was using them to keep track of earnings posts.

The cold truth is the fav has always been somewhat pointless. Retweet means you want more people to see this tweet and so you share it with your followers (no one cares if it's not an endorsement, seriously). Fav doesn't do anything to improve a tweet's viewership; it's basically like slipping a note to someone in class (Good one!).

After last week's disappointing third-quarter earnings report, which showed its user growth was barely 1 per cent, new chief executive officer Jack Dorsey suggested that Twitter was entering a more rapid phase of change to its core product.

"I've challenged our teams to look beyond assumptions about what makes Twitter the best place to share what's happening," Mr. Dorsey said on the conference call with analysts. "I'm confident our ideas will result in the service that's far easier to understand and much more powerful."

This is the first of those "ideas" since he said that, but it's not exactly a world-shaker.

Buzzfeed's technology team joined together on a reaction post that nailed one problem with a lot of Twitter's updates over the years: It called them "dude-fussing," which is "when you go camping and someone feels a primal need to poke at the fire every 30 seconds … These actions don't have any real effect. But they are fussy and make a great show of effort at doing something to make it all better."

Twitter's new Moments feature I don't think of as dude-fussing, though Twitter's new polls definitely are. Casting back we can see a lot of fuss but not much meaning in examples like the occasional font change, removing the character limit from direct messages but not regular tweets, adding a special animation for birthdays and those little lines that are supposed to show a tweet "thread."

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When you scroll through Twitter's announcements it becomes clear that 90 per cent of the energy of the product delivery team is being expended on the advertising side. Improving data, location, editing and access for businesses are priorities. Where these two imperatives collided was on auto-play videos – a cool-seeming feature for advertisers that caused a lot of ruckus among users but ultimately didn't do much to make the experience of Twitter very different.

Twitter has pitched the heart as a solution to a literal translation problem: Allegedly Twitter has research that shows people in overseas market tests didn't find the star as universal a symbol of "I approve" as they do the heart. Whether the star has been holding back Twitter's overseas growth remains to be seen. Interestingly, Facebook is moving toward offering a wider range of emotional response than simply "like," and is now testing an emoticon-based system with users in Ireland and Spain.

But in the end, as Washington Post reporter Mark Berman rightly noted, most of this rage is ginned up by media folks who are vastly overrepresented on Twitter. He wrote a handy coda for Twitter news:

"Twitter does literally anything. People who spend all their time on Twitter self-destruct. Normal people have no idea anything happened."

And that's the real problem. Changing a star to a heart makes a lot of existing users mad, but it doesn't turn Twitter from a curious service full of angry people into the kind of place your mom wants to post pictures of the grandkids. Not that Twitter should do that, but it does need to get more people who are not using it to join. Even long-time Twitter users might heart that.

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