Twitter slipped a new option into users' settings earlier today that hinted the service may soon display images and video inline with users' 140-character updates, much like Facebook does in its News Feed. Moments after it was seen and reported on, it was gone again.
With Twitter keeping mum, questions abound: What will this feature look like? Will it slow Twitter's already-taxed servers? And will people use it?
Twitter is keeping quiet about the possible new feature, first publicized by Mashable, but sent media this vague statement:
"We're constantly exploring features and settings. What you saw was a small test of a potential consumption setting for inline media. We show inline media on our own iPhone and Android apps."
So, Twitter, here are the top questions in our minds about the "potential" new feature.
5 Questions About The New Tweet Media
Twitter's servers have enough trouble keeping up with text tweets - will including photos and video in streams on Twitter.com result in even more Whales?
The answer will depend on the display size of the photos and video and whether Twitter is hosting the media. It will be easier for Twitter to scale if it displays only thumbnail-sized images, as it does in its iPhone and Android apps, and relies on third parties to host the media - TwitPic has a thumbnail API, for example.
"I'm not sure what their implementation looks like but it is difficult to get right. It could theoretically add more strain," said Jason Shellen, CEO of Thing Labs.
Shellen runs the media-rich Twitter Web client Brizzly, was the lead product manager in creating Google Reader and was at the startup that sold Blogger to Google back in the day. So when he says scaling hosted media display is hard to get right, he's got a solid background from which to say it.
Twitter will likely have to, at least for a time, store more images than its doing now. But this would be a feature that they'll have the ability to disable system-wide if load gets too high, much like trends and search.
Will Twitter ever host images and video themselves?
Hosting images and video and displaying them large enough to see within the stream without having to click through would keep users on Twitter.com and potentially make it easier for Twitter to monetize its 100 million-strong user base. But that would mean extra infrastructure to allow users to upload media to Twitter and extra servers to store it.
Will Twitter censor photos and images that appear on Twitter.com?
Displaying images and video as thumbnails, or possibly larger, could introduce a risque element to Twitter.com. Will the company go the route of Apple and take measures to keep users "free from porn" and other unsavory content, or will the company let the stream go uncensored, potentially opening the doors further to XXX spammers?
What does this mean for third party clients?
This is likely to be the latest incident of Twitter adding features that strains the relationship between Twitter and its third party developers, as when the company bought the mobile reader Tweetie and re-released it as an official Twitter app - unless the company can implement the new feature in a creative way.
Twitter client Brizzly displays full-size photos and videos in its stream.
Services like Twitpic host media and get revenue by displaying ads. This revenue source would disappear if users no longer need to click through to see photos or videos - unless Twitter works out special relationships with third party clients.
YFrog is the default photo service in Twitter's iPhone app, suggesting a financial agreement between the companies. Perhaps Twitter would work out similar revenue-sharing arrangements with other media services.
We haven't heard what the third party media clients are thinking, but Shellen of Brizzly, which already offers inline media display, is optimistic about the impact. "I think there is more upside in the exposure than not," he said.
Will people use it?
From the beginning, the 140-character format was loved for its simplicity. But Facebook's News Feed and nifty apps like Flipboard incorporate multimedia into an aesthetic, cohesive and arguably more usable stream of updates from your friends.
Judging from the setting Twitter briefly inserted, users will see photos and videos posted by people they're following, no choice about it. Twitter will hide media from people you aren't following by default, but you can opt-in to see that too.
Some users might say that the low character limit was what made Twitter fun - but Twitter seems to be betting that 140 characters just isn't enough anymore.