As soon as Twitter changed from a texting service into an internet service, it was taken over by links. Tweets were no longer messages, they were web pointers with comments attached. It is useful to think of Twitter at that time as a constantly refreshing list of links with short descriptions — a series of doors with signs on them.
This structure gave Twitter a distinctly meta feeling, one that was exhilarating for its core users. Back in 2008 and 2009, Facebook sat within the internet, and its walls only let certain things inside; Twitter sat on top of the internet, and felt as though it surveyed the whole damn thing.
Now Facebook has lowered its walls substantially. It's still closed off, technically, but nothing about it feels exclusive. And Twitter's thousand-foot view of the internet has fallen to somewhere near eye level. Both Twitter and Facebook have had a profound effect on the internet below and around them, and both have become inseparable from the things they're used to find and share.
But today, Twitter announced that images and videos — just Vine videos, for now — will display directly in users' timelines. This is the result:
In addition, Favorite, Reply, and Retweet buttons are displayed between all tweets. You no longer have to open a tweet, or swipe it, to interact with it — you just tap on the action you want to take. Twitter's doors are now wide open. You could say there are no more doors at all.
This has been described as Facebook-like, which is fair. The line between "Comment, Share, Like" and "Reply, Retweet, Favorite" is a thin one. Twitter power users are already upset about the changes on the basis of density; there are fewer tweets on your screen at a given time, which requires more scrolling. This is also a fair point, but misguided. If there's one lesson to take from every major change in how people browse the internet over the last five years — the rise of infinite feeds, the gradual retirement of slideshows and pagination, the explosion of very tall, vertically interactive page layouts — it's that users hate to click and don't mind scrolling. Taps are expensive, swiping is cheap. Clicking is a choice, like jumping; scrolling is inevitable, like falling.
This Twitter update has also been described as Instagram-like, which, again, is fair. Using this new Twitter on a mobile device feels a little bit like scrolling through an Instagram for everything. The scan/fav/scroll routine will feel familiar to Instagram users, and to Tumblr users as well. And Gmail users, for that matter! In fact, it will make a lot of sense to a lot of people, particularly new users, which, more than anything else, is why the change happened in the first place.
But it will be most familiar to people who've used Vine, Twitter's quietly popular, and deeply weird, video service.
Superficially, Vine works a lot like Instagram. It prioritizes scrolling over tapping; it not only displays videos automatically but plays them too. Posts can be commented on and liked, which, on popular posts, happens profusely (this Twitter update is a major victory for the long-neglected fav).
But where Vine diverges from Instagram is with its "revine" feature, which functions like Twitter's retweets. It's a way for posts to spread within Vine, and a way for new people to make it into Vine users' feeds. It's also a way to take some degree of ownership of posts from other users, whether they're celebrities or just your friends.
Facebook and Instagram, on the other hand, ask you to interact with other users in a strictly subordinate way, in comments or likes, below a post. Twitter and Tumblr are more aspirational: You can reshare other users' posts as your own, and other users can reshare yours, with your name clearly attached.
Think of it this way: On Instagram, it's nearly impossible to go viral. On Facebook, content constantly goes viral. On Vine and Twitter, people go viral. Retweets are rewarded with follows, and follows are rewarded with more retweets. It's not a true meritocracy, but it can, under the right circumstances, feel like one.
What this Twitter update does, in that context, is lower the barriers for interacting with tweets, which in turn reduces the threshold for sharing and for virality. It turns Twitter into a more unstable, interactive, sensitive, and potentially explosive ecosystem, a place where you feel like you at least have a chance of breaking through.
This will cause tweets and their contents — particularly images — to move in new and weird ways. More and further, mostly. It's not at all hard to imagine retweet and fav counts listed alongside their respective buttons, right there in the feed, as badges of success.
By working more like Instagram, Twitter will actually become less like Instagram, all because of its core re-sharing function: It will be rowdier and more random, less meta and more direct, than ever before, which is both a calculation and a risk. It will probably reward different kinds of content than the Twitter of pointers and of gates. Images above all, but who knows what else.
And depending on how you use it, or have used it, Twitter may become overwhelming. I follow over 800 people on Twitter. This suddenly feels like way too many.
But for the countless users who have never quite understood why Twitter exists, or never really understood its appeal from a creative standpoint, this update might help it make sense. There's an image, I'm going to like it is a series of events virtually every internet user is conditioned to perform and understand. And these new or infrequent users' activity tabs may gradually fill up, as their peers begin to fav tweets not as some sort of complex, personal gesture but as a matter of course — not unlike the way people automatically like their friends' Instagram photos, except with more consequences for the content itself.
And then, of course, there's this:
Which coincides, within a week, with the introduction of Instagram ads:
Asking a user to scroll may be easier than asking a user to click. But ads that take up the majority of your screen — all of it, on Instagram — will be the ultimate test: Exactly how much can you ask your users to scroll before they just...stop?