Mike Isaac

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Twitter Gets Experimental — And Not Everyone Loves It

Part of any tech company’s usual rigamarole is testing changes to its products. It gives valuable insight into what your users like and — more importantly — what they don’t.

Case in point: Twitter has amped up its product testing lately in the form of what it calls “experiments;” a flip of a switch here, a rollout of a new product to a small subset of users there, all attempts to see how people react. And it can be a good thing to play with changes to the product — especially when the company can’t seem to figure out what it wants its product to be.

But while it may help Twitter understand its users, some experiments go over better than others.

On Monday, for instance, @BreakingNews — the Twitter handle maintained by the Breaking News startup inside of and owned by NBC News — tweeted that NASA launched its unmanned Maven rocket toward Mars. Seconds later, Twitter pushed out that same tweet to a number of people following one of its experimental accounts, “Event Parrot.”

The complaints flooded in that @BreakingNews, not Twitter, was annoying people with items they weren’t interested in seeing.

“We’re huge fans of Twitter,” Breaking News co-founder Cory Bergman said in a blog post. “We just hope today’s experiment isn’t a sign of where Twitter wants to take the news — back in time.”

Then, a day later, Twitter ended one of its other experiments with direct messages, which let users accept DMs from people whether they were following one another or not. That decision, too, was met with some degree of displeasure.

A Twitter spokesperson had no comment when asked about the decisions, and I imagine the company won’t have much to say unless it makes a sweeping decision to roll out a new product.

On the one hand, a company can’t make all its users happy all the time. Whether one thinks Twitter handled these latest experiments clumsily — and I believe it did — product changes will always be met with grumbling. Especially when your user base is upward of 230 million people.

But aside from the occasional user grumble, I’d argue Twitter has a much bigger problem: It needs to figure out exactly what it is, and what it wants to be in the future. And from my conversations with people close to the company, it doesn’t seem like Twitter is on that track quite yet.

Perhaps in the meantime, Twitter can plod along pushing out little experiments like “The Twitter Guide,” an account pointed out to me today that basically teaches newcomers how to tweet.

But can Twitter experiment its way to a solid definition of itself?

I don’t know. In the meantime, we can watch the slick new YouTube demo below to see how Twitter explains what it thinks it is today.

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First the NSA came for, well, jeez pretty much everybody’s data at this point, and I said nothing because wait how does this joke work

— Parker Higgins via Twitter