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Twitter tests new profile features, including presence indicators and ‘ice breakers’

Executives say they want to enhance conversations on the platform

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Twitter is testing new features designed to enhance conversations on the platform, including presence indicators, which are status indicators to help you describe what you’re doing while you tweet, and “ice breakers,” which are designed to help spur more discussions. Some of the features were discussed in public tweets this year. But in a meeting with Twitter executives, including its design director, the company showed me new designs that it’s considering for the service.

The designs come at a time when Twitter is attempting to promote more positive discussions and to reduce the number of hateful, abusive ones that take place on its service. These prototypes do not directly address harassment; other divisions at Twitter are at work on that problem. These designs come at the issue from the other side: helping people who are friendly find each other and start tweeting.

Twitter emphasized that the prototypes it showed me were not final designs, and it has not committed to rolling out any of the changes it discussed. (It also previewed them at a Fast Company event in New York City on Wednesday.) But some of the new features, including a new view for conversations that makes them look more like a group text, are already in testing among Twitter employees.

Sara Haider, a director of product management who is working on conversations, introduced the idea of redesigned conversations on August 31st with a tweet:

The redesigned conversations highlight replies from the original poster in a different color. In the design I saw on Wednesday, replies from people you follow are highlighted in a different color as well. Twitter’s intention is to make conversations feel more welcoming by making it look more like a discussion among friends and inviting you to participate in a friendly way, too.

Another way Twitter has considered encouraging new conversations is by adding a reply field to every single tweet. As you scroll through your feed, you would see a new field with the word “reply” next to the heart and retweet button. One reason Twitter is exploring the idea is that many new users still don’t understand that they can reply to tweets by tapping the conversation bubble in every tweet. (I personally find this reply field too heavy-handed since I reply to only a small percentage of tweets in my feed.)

Another feature Twitter is exploring is a presence indicator, similar to what you might find in Facebook Messenger. In the prototype I saw, users could choose to signal when they are on Twitter. The company noted that some people were changing their display names to indicate that they were currently on Twitter, looking for conversations, and it is considering building that into the product. The idea is that people who are on Twitter at the same time will start more conversations.

Another feature Twitter is considering is a twist on the pinned tweet designed to promote conversations. The company showed me a design that would let you pin an “ice breaker” to the top of your profile to let people know you wanted to talk about something specific. The company’s design director, Mike Kruzeniski, told me it could help Twitter users channel their followers’ enthusiasm into discussions they wanted to have — whether it be about a new project, a current event, or some other item of interest.

The final design Twitter showed me is another twist on presence indicators, which is focused on letting you include your current status while you tweet. I smiled when the company showed me this one — updating your status was, of course, the original idea behind Twitter. But today, people often discuss specific events without an easy way to signal what they’re talking about. Hashtags help, but they often rely on abbreviations and aren’t always clear to non-participants.

That’s why Twitter turned once again to status indicators. In other words, after hearing that you like a status, it put a status in your status so you can tweet while you tweet:

The nice thing about this feature is that you could add it to your profile once and then tweet as many times as you wanted about a thing without having to add the necessary hashtags each time. I like this idea a lot. I think it could add helpful context to discussions on Twitter, while also being lightweight and fun. My suggestion to Twitter was that they let people mute statuses if they so choose. So, for example, if you didn’t want to hear from anyone at the Consumer Electronics Show, you could mute that status, and Twitter could hide tweets from everyone who used it.

It’s highly unusual for a software company to preview designs this way, particularly before it has committed to rolling them out. Haider told me that the company wants to solicit feedback from its highly vocal user base to help shape the design process.

“Coming up with a product in a silo and dumping it on people is not going to work,” she said. “Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. We want to understand what people’s feedback is, and then tweak and iterate on the product.”