Among the haters, jokesters, and armchair UX critics that commented on the switch, the most commonly echoed sentiment seemed to be: Twitter doesn’t get us. Right as Facebook announces that it will give users a broader palette for expressing themselves, Twitter decides to limit its user’s reactions to feel-good ones only.
Well, too bad, current Twitter users—this isn’t about you. It’s about future users. Akarshan Kumar, product manager at Twitter, said so explicitly in a blog post this morning: “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. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.”
“New users, new users, new users. That’s the story there,” says Nate Clinton, director of product strategy at Cooper design firm. Even with its newly appointed celebrity CEO, Twitter is struggling to add new users. In that light, introducing the heart makes sense. “Twitter has this history of changing their product to reflect emergent user behavior, and that’s been good for them,” Clinton says. Consider the hashtag: Twitter wove it into its functionality because its search was subpar; now Twitter supports hashtags, and they’re a modern lexical phenomenon.
Online, likes are the coin of the realm. The red heart, too, is a known entity; not only is it a universally recognized symbol, it’s Instagram’s signature interaction (and Instagram is outperforming Twitter). But the livestreaming app Periscope, which Twitter acquired earlier this year, also uses hearts—a feature Kumar says users have embraced “in a big way.” Pushing hearts to Twitter and Vine, then, is about more than familiarity—it’s about establishing uniformity across the brand and its interfaces, and what Kumar calls a “common language for our global community.”
It’s a simple tactic, one that Twitter hopes will increase user engagement. “The heart is likely to trigger more social activities because its meaning (like) is well understood in society,” says Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram. “When something is understood, it’s more likely to engage people.”
As much as it condescends to users to suggest they can’t decipher the meaning of a star button, the contexts in which we use stars and hearts are markedly different. “There’s a functional difference between a favorite and a like,” Clinton says. “Favorite is a bookmarking concept from the old days of the web. It’s personal, like I just want to save this myself, whereas a like is more public.” Indeed, in Gmail, you use a star to file something away for your own use at a later time.
So, whether users like it or not (sorry), Twitter seems to be homogenizing with the rest of the Internet. It’s hard to say whether that tendency toward uniformity will affect other hallmark features of the platform—e.g. the 140-character count—but to all of Twitter’s heartbroken (again, sorry) devotees out there: Enjoy those features while you can.