Product Design Challenge: How Twitter Handles Meta-data vs. Content

I love Product Design. As consumer tech has matured, I think the most interesting challenges have largely moved from pure technology problems in to more general interface problems - helping a user get real value from a product while also creating real value for the company.


On Friday, there was a good discussion on Twitter questioning whether Twitter should treat links as content or meta-data. If you're wired like me, it was a real barn-burner; a smart conversation packed with interesting thoughts about the future of Twitter.

Twitter treats links as content, why?

Twitter was built with mobile in mind, and was designed for complete compatibility with SMS. This decision has defined the product in many major ways, for example, tweets are limited to 140 Characters so they can allow 20 characters for appending a username while still fitting under the 160 char limit of SMS.

Another big influence SMS has had is the simple design of what a tweet is; the amount of meta-data attached to a tweet is very limited (username, time, originating client and location). Everything else in the tweet is text-only and considered content. If you need more room or want to include anything other than text, you host it elsewhere and place a link to it in the tweet.

What this means is that when you are sharing a link, you actually have to include the link in the content of your tweet. The text address of that link is content, so it counts against the character limit of your tweet.

On Friday, Sean Parker took issue with that and told Jack Dorsey about it (with a tweet of course, pictured above). What ensued was a great public discussion on how twitter should treat links. Several talented product people chimed in with their thoughts. That link is a storify containing some of the main points of the tweets, so you can get the gist of the discussion (it is in no ways a complete log of the discussion).

It is amazing that this debate is now available publicly. Not long ago, access to discussions like this was only available to a handful of people working at 3am in an office together.

If you want to excercise your product design muscles, ask yourself, how would you solve this problem?

Working to come up with an answer to that question, one you're proud of and can defend intelligently, will let you engage in discussion with people who feel differently. That logical argument will help you become a better product designer. Feel free to post your answers in the comments.

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Here's how I would solve it. 

Twitter creates value for their user base in many ways:

  • enabling people to share more information (especially people who couldn't share before)
  • enabling people to share more quickly
  • enabling people to access more information (especially info they couldn't access before)
  • enabling people to have mutually-interesting direct conversations.
  • If you view how Twitter handles links under this light, there are several benefits to handling links as meta-data:

  • Remove the need for users to "hard-code" cues for different types of information
  • Increases the readability of a tweet, by splitting contextual information and the user's reaction (helps new users understand how to use it)
  • Decrease the barriers to entry for composing a tweet
  • You can now allow people to share more by attaching more meta-data per tweet (a collection of links, a group of photos, etc.)
  • New UI constructs would be needed to show the attached meta-data, but the effects above sound positive to me.

    They improve the core experience of Twitter and help Twitter appeal to a wider base of people by simplifying the experience.

    Content is for user-created, meta-data is for reference material.

     I would argue that the best user experience is for a user to use the tweet to provide their context (their voice). Everything else is essentially supporting material and can be attached.

    This is why users re-post something someone else said and put a "RT" in front of it, despite the existence of a twitter designed retweet function. People often want to communicate their reactions AND be able to reference what prompted those reactions.

    Using meta-data to attach things to a tweet would allow tweets to become information dense, without increasing the size of the "content," which has many benefits.

    The most confusing question is whether @names are content or meta-data. I lean toward @names being content (who a user replies to is context they've created). I could be persuaded that it's meta-data though. 

    There are negatives to change.

     I'd be silly to suggest that making this change wouldn't have some potential costs. The SMS experience is core to Twitter's success, and interoperability with this standard is key in some of the most important use cases Twitter has. SMS access is used heavily by international users and by those of modest means. Impacting those users would have a huge negative effect, and any impact on these group needs to be neutralized (or at least heavily mitigated).

    SMS users are dramatically impacted, because there is little room to send meta-data over SMS. Right now only a little meta-data sent is the username (up to 20 char), as the tweet takes up to 140 characters. That makes sure that all the tweets received via SMS come in as only one text message.

    Adding link meta-data to this would take the meta-data count up to ~35 characters. I think the majority of messages received would still be under the 160 character limit of each text message (usernames are often less than 20 characters, tweet content is often less than 140 characters).

    However, a non-trivial amount of tweets sent over SMS would be greater than 160 characters.

    Here's my solution:

  • Make adding links the same as today, simply copy the URL in to the tweet composer
  • Stop counting URLs against the character limit
  • Strip all links out of tweets, start including them as meta-data on a tweet
  • Use t.co to host links to permalink page of tweets w/ attached meta-data
  • On the permalink page, include the tweet content and all meta-data (username, location, any links, any media attached for pics.twitter.com, # of retweets, any replies, etc.)
  • Append the t.co link after the tweet in all tweets fetched via SMS or API, remove the t.co link from Twitter built interfaces
  • Build a new UI for mobile and web apps, show meta-data in the tweet experience (right hand pane on web/tablet, individual tweet page on mobile app)
  • If the new UI negatively affects clicks, explore integrating meta-data into the feed view (Clickable text? Potentially use the [PIC] and/or [LINK] construct that exists in the community today)
  • Here's how you can protect SMS users:

  • For cases when username + content + t.co link is > 160 characters, let the user decide whether to receive multiple SMS messages or whether to truncate the last few characters of the tweet (which they can view on the t.co link if so desired)
  • Allow SMS users to reply to any tweet with 'more' and receive all attached URLs (probably shortened) via a second sms message
  • Optimize permalink sites to load quickly, with low data usage and on feature phones
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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.