It's been a little more than a year since I complained here about Twitter's language problem—the misleading terms, the skewed assumptions, the confusing brand message. I'm pleased to report that Twitter has made some salutary changes during the last 12 months. There's still room for improvement, but Twitter language is a lot clearer than it used to be. It's beginning to reflect the way people (or at least the people I follow on Twitter) actually use the service: to share links, exchange information, get answers, and build connections with new acquaintances all over the world. Twitter really isn't, or doesn't have to be, about "what I had for breakfast."
As a step in the right direction, Twitter has banished the annoying "What are you doing?" question that used to greet returning visitors to Twitter.com (also known as "Twitter Web," in contrast to the many third-party clients available to Twitter users). Instead, the line above the text window reads "What's happening?" and the button is labeled "Tweet" instead of the potentially confusing (to me, anyway) "Update." It's easier to upload photos and shorten links within Twitter Web (although I still prefer and recommend TweetDeck, which runs independently of a browser). "Replies" has been replaced by "@TwitterName," a more accurate way of labeling tweets that "mention" my Twitter account, @Fritinancy.
For brand-new users, the welcome screen now provides a more useful overview of Twitter's value. The banner reads "Discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world." A gallery of Twitter bigwigs—celebrities, airlines, media accounts—lets you "See who's here"; click on a thumbnail photo/avatar to go to that user's page.
When you get there, you'll see this message:
Get short, timely messages from [Twittername].
Twitter is a rich source of instantly updated information. It's easy to stay updated on an incredibly wide variety of topics.
I like "short, timely messages" and "rich source." I'm not crazy about "incredibly"—"a wide variety" is sufficient here—and I find "instantly updated" to be misleading: Twitter Web doesn't "instantly update" until you refresh your browser. (TweetDeck, by contrast, auto-updates according to a schedule you control.)
And there are other problems, old and new.
Still unresolved since last year: "Profile" is still not my profile but rather a timeline of the tweets I've sent. (Except when it's a tab in Settings called "Profile Settings." Surely there's a better way!)
Meanwhile, if you're not already a user but merely Twitter-curious, there's been an attempt to clarify the language that greets you. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough.
Over on the right of the welcome screen is this sidebar:
New to Twitter?Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It's a whole thing.
Customize Twitter by choosing who to follow. Then see tweets from those folks as soon as they're posted.
"It's a whole thing"? What the frack is that supposed to mean, and why did Twitter waste 19 characters putting it up there? And before you suggest that the sentence was inserted to fill space, allow me to point out that it actually creates an orphan: a single word—thing—that dangles unaesthetically at the beginning of a line.
"It's a whole thing" isn't just lazy, pointless writing. It's a clue that the writer of this copy isn't a professional writer but rather someone pressed into service to "throw some words up there" (an editorial direction I myself have heard more than once). The giveaway is thing, a placeholder word frequently used as an all-purpose noun by people who are uncomfortable with verbal thinking. (I wrote about thing and other habits of visual thinkers in my post about visual and verbal thinking, Fear of Words.)
I'm sure one of you is going to quibble with the next sentence: "Customize Twitter by choosing who to follow." And you're right: who should be whom. On the other hand, "choosing whom to follow" sounds inappropriately stuffy here, especially when you're calling people "folks" in the next sentence. Better grammarians than I—see John McIntyre, for example—have argued for cutting some slack in the who/whom debate. But really, Twitter: why risk sounding stupid, if only to the 10 percent of your users that cares about grammar? How hard would it have been to write, instead: "Customize Twitter by choosing your followers people to follow"? (Thanks to commenters Simon and Orange for pointing out the error in my original suggestion.)
In summary: three steps forward, two steps back.
The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that while the people leading Twitter may be coding geniuses and charming interview subjects, they have only a halfhearted commitment to communicating a clear, coherent, and consistent message about the value of their service. Which may explain why, according to a recent Edison Research study, 87 percent of Americans are aware of Twitter . . . but only 7 percent actively use it. Telling the other 93 percent that Twitter is "a whole thing" is unlikely to persuade them to join the fold.