Twitter’s New ‘Fleets’ Are for People Who Are Afraid to Tweet
‘Tweeting, retweeting, engaging in conversation can honestly be incredibly terrifying,’ the company’s head of research said
Twitter on Tuesday launched “Fleets,” its version of the Snapchat Stories (or Instagram Stories, or Facebook Stories, or LinkedIn Stories, or… well, you get the idea). Like those others, they can come in the form of text, images, or video; they appear above the feeds of the people who follow you and they disappear after 24 hours. On Twitter, they can also include a tweet, either yours or someone else’s, along with your reaction to it. Unlike tweets, they can’t be retweeted, liked, or replied to, except via direct message.
From one perspective, this is just Twitter keeping up with the Joneses, launching a familiar feature in a characteristically belated fashion. In a call with journalists on Monday, however, Twitter executives made the case that Fleets are part of a larger push to reshape the service as something friendlier, safer, and more comfortable for novice users. Along with Fleets, the company teased an upcoming feature called Spaces, which will allow users to set up live audio chat rooms and control who can join.
If you ask Twitter’s power users what the company’s biggest problems are, especially in the United States, you’re likely to hear about issues such as content moderation, abuse and harassment, bots, partisan echo chambers, and its codependent, love-hate relationship with Donald Trump. Those are all real issues that the company continues to struggle with. From a business standpoint, however, Twitter’s biggest problem is simply that most people still don’t tweet.
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While the platform has grown in recent years, closing in on 200 million daily active users worldwide, it was long ago lapped by younger rivals such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, and the pandemic has not resulted in the boom that other online platforms have experienced. What’s holding Twitter back, the company believes, is not a lack of public interest in its platform, which has become integral to politics and culture. It’s that a lot of people, even after they join, are scared to tweet.
“Tweeting, retweeting, engaging in conversation can honestly be incredibly terrifying,” especially for new users, said Nikkia Reveillac, the company’s head of research. “They don’t know if anyone will reply; they don’t know if anyone will even care.” That matters to Twitter because its data show that, while some people may settle in as lurkers, actively tweeting and replying is what drives people to make Twitter a habit, rather than just an occasional visit.
From a business standpoint, Twitter’s biggest problem is simply that most people still don’t tweet.
Early tests of Fleets in several countries suggest that new users find them to be “an easier way to get started,” and that those with the feature enabled go on to engage more, said Joshua Harris, a director of design at Twitter. “We’ve been able to see how this new experience allows people to share what they’re thinking with less pressure.” Harris seemed to view the feature as primarily conducive to casual, tossed-off personal thoughts or reactions that don’t merit a permanent, public tweet. Granted, that describes a lot of tweets that people already send — but also, it seems, a lot that they opt not to.
Recent Fleets from people you follow will appear above your timeline, a piece of real estate that Twitter is now referring to internally as the “Fleet line.” But they won’t have that spot to themselves. In the coming months, they’ll share it with Spaces, an audio chat product that Twitter said it will roll out “as an experiment” to a small group of users.
Those with Spaces enabled will be able to convene a live group voice chat on Twitter and invite either their followers or a few specific people to join. Anyone can listen, but the person who creates the Space controls who can participate. The concept calls to mind Clubhouse and Discord, which have grown fast amid the pandemic, but which have also been beset by moderation problems that may be endemic to voice platforms. But Twitter’s mostly public nature suggests that, for better or worse, it might feel more like an onstage panel than a living room chat.
Another thing that will set Spaces apart is the initial audience. Twitter product designer Maya Gold Patterson said the feature will be enabled first for women and people from marginalized communities — that is, some of the people most likely to face harassment, abuse, and bigotry on Twitter. “The company is interested in hearing first from this group of people on their feedback on audio Spaces,” Patterson said.
Recent Fleets from people you follow will appear above your timeline, a piece of real estate that Twitter is now referring to internally as the “Fleet line”
Historically, many of Twitter’s (and other social networks’) most persistent problems have stemmed from building products that reflected the values and experiences of their mostly white, male creators. A top complaint about Clubhouse has been that it feels too much like, well, a clubhouse for the techies and VCs who built and funded it. With Spaces, Twitter appears to be intentionally subverting that approach.
Taken together, these product updates suggest that Twitter views its longstanding problems with user safety and user growth as two sides of a coin. If Twitter can find ways to make marginalized users feel safer, it should in theory feel safer to everyone else, too — and more welcoming for people who have been hesitant to get involved at all.
Then again, Twitter has been trying to solve those same two problems for years, in various ways. The company, to its credit, seems to finally be ramping up its pace of product development. But it’s not clear yet whether bolting on additional features can change the underlying nature of Twitter’s service —or convince newcomers that it’s worth their time.