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Twitter's plan to give users more control over replies comes with risks

The social network plans to experiment with a feature that lets you choose who can reply to a tweet.

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Twitter executives speak at a press briefing at CES on Wednesday.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Twitter executives said Wednesday the social network plans to experiment this year with a new feature that would give users more control over who can reply to a tweet, a move that could help combat online abuse on the site. But as Twitter tries to change how we converse online, the new feature could also come with a downside: more filter bubbles. 

During CES, the world's largest consumer-electronics trade show, which kicked off this week in Las Vegas, Twitter provided an early look at a new replies tool it's set to test during the first quarter. Here's how it works: When you compose a tweet, you'll be able to choose who can reply. There are four options: anyone, people you follow or mention, people you mention or just you.

Limiting replies could come with positive effects. The tool could allow users to prevent online bullies from replying to their tweets, a problem Twitter's been cracking down on for years. It could also make conversations easier to follow because you could limit replies to a group of people. Last year, we saw how confusing Twitter conversations can be to follow, when Recode executive editor and journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on the site, an experience that was described as a "chaotic hellpit."

Dorsey has also acknowledged the site contributes to creating "filter bubbles," in which people's political viewpoints or biases are reinforced. The issue could pop up if the company ends up launching the new limits on replies because you'd pick and choose who could respond. That means you might miss a reply that identifies mistakes or misinformation. 

Standing in a room filled with books and the Twitter logo, Twitter product chief Kayvon Beykpour said those are issues the company is considering during the experiment. He identified ways around limiting replies, such as users quoting a tweet if they wanted to weigh in on a remark.

"There are, I think, subtleties to how we implement this that I think are really important," Beykpour said.

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Twitter plans to experiment with a feature that'll let you choose who can reply to your tweet.

Twitter

An ongoing focus

In many ways, the new tool is an extension of the work the company has already been doing around conversations on the site. 

In November, Twitter said it would let users worldwide hide replies to their tweets. Before Twitter rolled out the feature globally, the company tested it in Canada, Japan and the US. 

The good news is Twitter found users have mostly hidden replies that are "irrelevant, abusive or unintelligible."

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Twitter's icon for replies.

James Martin/CNET

Suzanne Xie, Twitter's director of product management, said that during the experiment users will have to set up who can reply to their tweet after they compose the tweet. Asked if users will be able to change these settings after the tweet is posted, Xie said the company is exploring the possibility.

"We do want to be thoughtful about what the impact will be so that you can't actually change the conversation afterwards," Xie said.

Online harassment continues to be a problem for Twitter. The social media site can be a "toxic place," especially for female journalists and politicians, according to a 2018 study by Amnesty International and Element AI.

Twitter has been focusing on making the site more positive, but it's unclear exactly how well those efforts are working. The issue continues to be one of the company's top priorities as we move into 2020.

"If people are fearful of being abused or harassed on the platform, it's not a particularly pleasant place to participate, and so health for us is important," Beykpour said.