New Twitter Feature Offers “Out of Body” Experience

Twitter has begun rolling out a new feature that lets users view the world through another perspective, specifically through the perspective of other specific people on Twitter. The new feature will appear on the /following page of any profile on the site and will display the most recent messages from the Twitter users that a profile owner is following. The page currently just shows who they are following.

In other words: if you look at my profile on Twitter you can see not only who I am following but you can also see Twitter as I see Twitter. This might seem like a small change, but philosophically it’s a big one. Two words come to mind: Empathy and Privacy.

This feature is quite like one called With Friends, which Twitter removed two years ago next week, for reasons of computational efficiency. It’s a good sign that Twitter is feeling confident enough in its scaling now to bring something like that back.

Empathy

Last month we wrote about the launch of News.me, an iPad news app that operates very similarly to this new Twitter feature. It does many other things, too, and this week added a new feature that lets you see not just what anyone else is subscribed to – but what stories they clicked through and actually read. It’s notable that the people behind News.me, Betaworks, are very closely related to Twitter Inc.

Here’s what we wrote about News.me:

View Bit.ly data scientist Hilary Mason’s stream on News.me and you’ll see a flow of super-geeky articles shared by the people she’s following on Twitter: articles about statistics, data mining and social networking from a qualitative perspective.

View Microsoft youth social network researcher danah boyd on News.me and you’ll see something very different: anthropological articles about young people online, cyberbullying, teenage self-expression, mobile tech user studies.

[Betaworks’ CEO John] Borthwick believes that the experience also offers a meaningful antidote to the age-old dilema of internet-as-echo-chamber. The app makes it remarkably easy to find yourself reading content published and shared by people with world-views different than your own.

Seeing the online world through different peoples’ perspectives is a remarkably unique way to experience news consumption.

News.me is a far more complex operation than Twitter’s new feature, but the similarities are worth noting. Brazilian developer Lelinho Prado launched a 3rd party app called CTwittlike that offers the same type of functionality some time ago.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is good for connecting people all around the world, but due to that network’s different privacy foundation, one thing it will never be able to do is let its users see the world through other peoples’ eyes. That, Twitter is uniquely well positioned to do.

Privacy

One notable difference between the new Twitter feature and News.me is that News.me requires users to opt-in to having their streams read inside the app. “If Sarah Palin has a tweet stream full of Justin Bieber articles, that’s not really anyone’s business,” Borthwick told me when News.me was under development. (He did say that Palin in particular might be an exception, but you get the idea.)

If you are following say Howard Stern, Britney Spears or @NaughtyPlayboyBunniesFromHell on Twitter – that was always publicly visible information. But now it’s all the easier for other people to see.

That’s something Twitter probably ought to allow users to opt-out of.

If you are following say Howard Stern, Britney Spears or @NaughtyPlayboyBunniesFromHell on Twitter – that was always publicly visible information. But now it’s all the easier for other people to see.

That’s something Twitter probably ought to allow users to opt-out of.

Either way, Twitter is a fascinating public stream of semi-structured information. Every link on the page exposes another pathway to slice and dice real-time social information. To expose the Tweets that a given account is following is just one more logical field of data to expose. It may have very interesting consequences, though.

You can find the whole ReadWriteWeb team, and soon see what it is we’re reading, here on Twitter.

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