The Twitter Threading Problem

I love Twitter, but ever since I started using it I felt that the way it implemented the reply system was a bit lacking. On one hand they made it very simple to reply to people. Simply start your message with @name and it will automatically link it to the most recent tweet of that person and then put it on their “replies” page. There is a problem here which is probably best illustrated by this conversation:

Twitter Threading Conversation

As you can see, we have a nice 3 way, asynchronous conversation going on here. Now, how hard do you think it was for me to generate the image above and make it thread like that? Can it be done automatically? Nope. The way I did this was to fish out and screen-cap the particular messages one by one. Also, they were not all in one place. I had to go and grab some of them from Miloš’s and Billy’s twitter pages.

Quotably is a valiant attempt to automatically generate stuff like the manually constructed conversation above. Unfortunately due to the fact that Twitter’s threading model is broken by design it doesn’t always work. For example, here is what it caught from this conversation:


As you can see, it’s almost there. It just that a lot of the tweets simply got dropped for various reasons. For example, using the @name notation in your message more than once will confuse the system and it won’t link to anything. The other issue was that at one point Miloš and Billy were talking to each other and while I still saw their conversation happening on my updates page , and it was still regarding the same topic page, Quotably wouldn’t associate it with my name and include them in this thread.

Billy is right, putting the StatusID value in the message itself is probably a bad idea as it would quickly start eating away our precious 140 characters. But Twitter already does some behind the scenes magic, when it links your message to the top tweet of the person you replied to. So in theory you should be able to re-construct the whole thread by simply clicking on the “in reply to” links. This hardly ever works though. Most conversations are asynchronous so by the time you replied to something, the author of that tweet might have posted 3 or 4 new messages and yours gets linked to the most recent one.

There really ought to be a way to link to a message rather than to a person. We are already halfway there – each tweet has a reply button associated with it. Now all we need to do is to make these buttons do something – and preferably without losing any characters in the message area.

Before that happens though, we need a better threading app. Is it possible to do it with the current Twitter setup? Perhaps, but we can’t really really rely on the in-reply-to implementation currently in place. This is what Quotably is doing right now, and it is not really working for conversations such as the one above. So how do we thread messages?

Perhaps we could try to reconstruct a conversation by simply doing a full text search on the @name pattern and then arrange tweets chronologically. So a user could select 2-3 user names, and then have the Quotably like service fetch all their status updates in which either of the chosen users includes an @name pattern of any of the other two. No indentation, or other thread structure would be necessary here, because it is pretty much infer it from the data at hand. But if we list them chronologically we at least capture them the way they originally appeared in your Twitter stream.

It’s not perfect but it could be a nice complement to a service like Quotably. I do not purpose using it as the main threading system, but rather as an alternative which could help users track more complex, many sided conversations between a group of users.

Update 05/07/2008 01:27:03 AM

Heh, it appears that Google Adsense is having an interesting take on this thread. Observe:

Twitter Threads According to Adsense

[tags]twitter, quotably, conversations, threading[/tags]

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7 Responses to The Twitter Threading Problem

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You said loosing…

    -1 to Writing skill. :P

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:


    > attack loosing
         Attack with what?
    > spellcheck
         Loosing is immune to spellcheck
    > replace loosing
         Replace with what?
    > losing
         You replace loosing with losing.
         Your post is no longer loose.
         You gain +100 Exp.
         You gained a level!
         You are now level 3 blogger.
         Your writing skill increases by +1.
    > go north
         You can't go North from here


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  3. but was twitter really designed in the beginning (or even now for that matter) to be a conversation place? It was designed as a micro-blog, not a chatroom. Case-and-point, why don’t you have conversations with other bloggers via Terminally-incoherent? Because this is a blog.
    I am just saying i think you are frustrated over something that the system wasn’t technically designed to do in the first place.

    That would be like me saying that my post counts are off in your database because sometimes I use and other times i use just as sometimes I use instead of and it really just depends on what computer i am on and what the auto fill is… however the system SHOULD recognize that it is all by Travis McCrea.

    OOOR Why I don’t get a dofollow on my link?
    I mean I post here a lot (maybe less then others, but i have been a solid reader for over a year) any blog commenter should get a dofollow link. I do that on to encourage posting. Along with a link to their latest post in their blog.

    This sounds harsh, and I mean it with a light heart. I guess my main point is: I don’t think twitter was designed to have threaded conversations just like wordpress isn’t designed to give the commenter of your blog (inherently) a part of your pagerank, or give them much coverage at all because its supposed to be about the blogger.

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  4. :( I used too many links in my last post so its currently in moderation :D

    Just informing people I did in fact reply.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well, there is a reason why the post count plugin takes the email and url into account. Theoretically speaking I could have more than one John Smith posting here in the comments – and each of them could be putting in their unique email, and/or URL in the comment boxes, but their counts would be lumped together under one name. Not exactly the best solution.

    But you do have a good point about the dofollow thing. I really don’t get that much spam around here, and hardly anything ever gets past the combined powers of the CAPTCHA, Akismet and Bad Behavior. So I might actually remove the nofollow from comment links to give the commenters some Google juice.

    As for the Twitter thing – I agree. It was not designed for this purpose. But, it is being used this way so why not adapt it?

    Also, I believe blogs are perfectly fine communication platforms – this is why I use email notifications and various other plugins to facilitate discussion and make it easier to read and follow.

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  6. I guess thats true, and btw, i wasn’t bitching about not getting a “dofollow” (i hope you didn’t take it that way) I was trying to make a point.

    as for the John Smith thing, if they WANTED to, and it would be difficult:
    Check the post IP… If the IP and Names match up, then also put the other email and webaddress with it.. so unless 2 john smiths post from the same computer… you should be fine. But that is taking my example too far :)

    My only point is that although this is a new direction twitterers are taking, twitter has already taken strides to make conversations easier… but developing a whole new (or even making major edits to the) backend (which would be required because this would be changing some basic rules twitter lives by) is time consuming and changes the main path twitter was going down.

    :) Maybe you should make a twitter clone for communication.

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  7. There are some applications out there that offer threading of posts such as — You can add comments similar to Facebook and they are all synced back to Twitter with the topic thread linked with a short-URL.

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