A gigantic revolt has broken out in the Twittersphere over Twitter replies.

It began yesterday afternoon with a post on the Twitter Blog, entitled “Small Settings Update“:

We’ve updated the Notices section of Settings to better reflect how folks are using Twitter regarding replies. Based on usage patterns and feedback, we’ve learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow–it’s a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today’s update removes this undesirable and confusing option.

What this intentionally confusing announcement means is that, from now on, when your friend addresses someone you don’t know, you won’t see the message in your conversational stream.

In Twitter, beginning a message with the @ sign and a user’s name — as in @MarkCzerniec — addresses the message to that user. Such messages are singled out on the user’s replies page, so they’re not just lost in the stream of chatter.

However, unlike a “direct message” (DM), which is the equivalent of whispering in someone’s ear, an @reply had been part of the public stream of chatter. You could see your friend agreeing with something said by an intriguing stranger, and you might decide to start following that stranger as well.

“Friend of a friend” (or FOAF, as popularized by urban folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand) is a key mechanism by which human beings form social networks in real life. From our first day of kindergarten through our last days in the retirement village, we connect with new people through people we already know.

It is also one of the mechanisms which has made Twitter so popular — but that explosive popularity has become a burden for Twitter. The service creaks and groans and frequently fails under the strain of so many users sending and receiving so many messages to their friends, seen also by friends of friends, who in turn may become new followers — and so on, and so on. Might reducing the load — and not just increasing the chocorat — have played a part in Twitter’s decision to mute its users?

In any case, it’s a colossal blunder. Twitter users immediately organized under the hashtags #fixreplies and #twitterfail to protest the move. Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote an incredulous post at ReadWriteWeb: “Twitter Puts a Muzzle on Your Friends: Goodbye People I Never Knew:

Information overload is a problem that people complain about a lot, but that’s how Twitter works. There has to be some other way to deal with complaints about “stranger replies.” Perhaps it’s a tab or setting, but this silent hiding of public conversations your friends are having risks removing some of the most magical parts of Twitter. I love discovering new people through the people I already know. I found out about this policy through a Tweet from the New York Times’ Patrick LaForge, who always Tweets about interesting things. Too bad I’ll never hear about his friends again.

Others have improvised workarounds. @JesseNewhart began prefacing his replies with the word “to” in order to defeat the new muting.

If Twitter’s goal was to reduce noise, it is unfortunately being met with loud booing — not only on Twitter, but also on FriendFeed, where I have personally been seeing a slightly increased migration of people I know.

Adam Turetzky made an interesting observation via FriendFeed overnight:

Wow, Michael Rose’s reply here http://www.readwriteweb.com/archive… on ReadWriteWeb about the new Twitter settings totally made me realize why Twitter has such a user retention problem! The setting is the default & been for over a year. Meaning everyone new who’s been signing up for Twitter never see the Tweets from the people they follow that begin with an @xxx

Twitter’s Trouble With Repeat Users” was the subject of a New York Times story on Sunday.

Ironically, if you subscribe to someone via Twitter competitor FriendFeed, you see not only their general tweets but also their @replies — as well as their blog posts, their shared Google Reader items, whatever they Digg, their Disqus comments, their Delicious bookmarks, their YouTube favorites, their loved songs on Last.fm and anything else they have decided to share through their feed.

Now that’s social.

Update, 1:50 PM:

Over at Mashable, Pete Cashmore has “Twitter’s Response to #fixreplies: We Can’t,” in which he points out Twitter’s doublespeak on this issue:

Originally, Twitter said they were disabling the feature because it was confusing, although in fairness the only people who had it turned on were those who had chosen to. Today, however, Twitter adds that this isn’t the whole story: the engineering team says the feature had to be removed for technical reasons.

Jason Kincaid, writing at TechCrunch, also calls Twitter out: “Twitter Waffles About Why @Replies Were Dumbed Down“:

Users have been up in arms since the change, venting their complaints in the highly trending channel #fixreplies. It’s been a disaster. …

This is a PR failure on Twitter’s part. The company was totally misleading about their motivation for killing the option, and now they’re forced to fess up because they’d have a tough time re-enabling it.

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