Of Sheep and Shepards

February 6, 2010

There is a very memorable scene in an episode of Sex and the City in which Aiden and Mr. Big overcome their issues by bonding over Mr. Big’s communication problems with his current famous girlfriend:

Big: And the thing is, see, she can reach me, but I could never get her. Day or night, whenever, she could reach me, I couldn’t get her. See?
Aidan: That’s fucked up.
Big: Yeah.

(Full disclosure: I understand that it is extremely bizarre that a heterosexual male is referencing Sex and the City episodes, but it’s actually a pretty good show. And any dude that won’t admit that is just ashamed of liking a show targeted at women.)

My purpose for referencing this scene is that it appears as though Twitter implemented direct messaging while watching it. The permission schemes for direct messaging has bothered me on numerous occassions, most recently when I attempted to respond to a direct message sent to me from @fredwilson:

I received these two messages:

I am given the option to reply, which means that Twitter is not intelligent enough (or the call is too expensive to make) to detect that Fred is not following me and I will not succeed in replying:

I am told there has been an “Error,” which clearly is not the case. Nothing erroneous happened. This is Twitter’s expected result:

I’m well aware many, if not most, Twitter profiles are public. Allowing followers to direct message users they are following – regardless of whether or not the relationship is reciprocal – would cause an unwanted flood of messages to be sent to celebrities and micro-celebrities like Fred. However, in this particular example, Fred initiated contact with me, which I believe implies that he at the very least wouldn’t mind a response to the thread and more likely does wants a response. He may not want to follow my updates (he probably has better things to do), but he clearly wants to contact me right now. This leads me to believe that there must be some solution to this problem.

For the purpose of thinking this through, I’m going to refer to follwers as sheep and those whom followers follow as shepherds. My first thought was to only allow a sheep to reply to a thread initiated by a shepherd. The problem is that sheep would have an unlimited number of “replies” they could make to shepherds, which still leaves shepherds vulnerable to floods. My next thought was to only allow sheep to reply to a thread initiated by a shepherd once, but that gives the sheep only one shot to get a reply right which is a bummer if you make a mistake. My final and most dersirable solution is to only allow sheep to reply to messages that are initiated by shepherds and allow shepherds to mute threads at any time to prevent flooding or spam. This means that Fred can instantiate a conversation with me, I can reply freely, and at any point in time if Fred feels as though I’m abusing the relationship, he can mute the conversation and never engage me again.

I realize that Twitter is focused on public messaging features such as lists and retweets at the moment. But if direct messaging becomes more important in the roadmap, I strongly suggest they get their sheep/shepard issues resolved.


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