Why Twitter's New 'Like' Button Is A Big Deal

In its effort to go mainstream, Twitter risks alienating its most loyal users, who do not

Faced with stagnating user growth, Twitter needs to make itself more accessible to mainstream users. But is copying Facebook really the best way to do that?

Twitter replaced the star icon for "Favorites" with a heart on Tuesday. The feature, which has existed since 2006, will now be called "Likes."

"We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers," Akarshan Kumar, a Twitter product manager, wrote in a blog post announcing the change.

"You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite," Kumar wrote. "The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it."

Twitter is right: Everyone in the world understands what a heart means. As BuzzFeed pointed out, this shift represents prioritizing mainstream user growth over "power users," the base of core users who produce the majority of tweets on the site.

According to the company’s financial reports, Twitter’s monthly active users only grew by 4 million users last quarter, from a total of 316 million globally to 320 million.

Still, Twitter knows that alienating its longtime users is a business risk, as it acknowledged in its S-1 filing to become a public company in 2013. Yet the creation of the "like" feature -- which has already been criticized by journalists, other longtime users and at least one actual Twitter employee -- suggests the company is courting the masses at the expense of the people who made the platform into a global nervous system for information exchange.

Many of those power users, particularly women and minorities, knew for years that Twitter has had an abuse problem, and yet it was only until celebrities started fleeing the platform that the company's management did something real about it. Targets of abuse might not Like the Heart, either.

The reactions of people I follow suggest that there are many other reasons longtime users do not Like the change.

Personally, I have used the Favorite feature to bookmark, acknowledge, wink or wave. It’s never been just a positive Like, despite what the word "favorite" might imply.

Vivian Schiller, Twitter's former head of news, said the same thing on Tuesday.

The research on all of the reasons that people favorite tweets makes it clear that people have adopted and adapted the tool for a variety of reasons.

While the addition of "Like" doesn't change the core functionality and will not, I think, drive power users away, it will pose a particular quandary for journalists.

For instance, say there's breaking news about a nuclear power plant explosion. Members of the media will want to bookmark these tweets, perhaps as a way of saving or curating them. Now they'll have to Like the tweets instead. When considering news coming out of war zones or stories of abuse or natural disaster abuse, it's easy to see how this could be a little dicey.

At least one Twitter employee, engineer Peter Siebel, acknowledged a potential problem here. (In subsequent tweets, however, Siebel clarified that he intended his observation to be ironic.)

Over the years, many of the best features on Twitter have been pioneered by users -- from the #hashtag to the retweet -- and later adopted into the product by the company itself. But the Like button was popularized by Facebook, while the Heart icon is a core feature of Instagram. By adopting both concepts, Twitter is swiping conventions from other platforms, rather than adapting user-driven innovations.

Still, in light of Facebook introducing more nuanced feedback options, moving to a Like button feels like adopting a feature from 2009, not 2015.

Did Twitter executives see Facebook users asking Mark Zuckerberg for a “Dislike” button for years and think, "Hey, we want that problem, too!"

Honestly, though, this is ultimately a small tweak to Twitter, not a fundamental change, like extending the famously short character limit or giving the option of making some tweets private. It's not a brand-new product, like an unbundled, dedicated messaging app. And it's not a new strategy, like acting as connective tissue for machines or as an identity provider for services or governments.

Turning Favorites to Likes won't sink or save the company. It does suggest, however, that Twitter executives still aren't using the product that much themselves, or interacting with the people who use it most.

Until that changes, Twitter continues to risk losing the qualities that, against all odds, have enabled it to endure.

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