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Before you start reading this article, I want you to take a look at the share buttons at the top. You’ll notice that the Facebook and LinkedIn icons have numbers next to them, but that the Twitter icon doesn’t. It’s not just this article though. Go to any other article on Memeburn, or any of your other favourite sites from around the web and you’ll notice that their share counts are gone too. That’s because, as of 20 November, Twitter killed share counts across the web.
The announcement, which dates back 22 September, was made with little fanfare and come alongside tweaks to the social network’s default share icons. The decision appears to largely be a financial one, with Twitter essentially saying that it’s too expensive and difficult to maintain. But does it really it make sense?
Buying the trade-offs
Twitter gives a variety of reasons for killing share counts, including its migration away from Cassandra, in favor of Manhattan, its real-time, multi-tenant distributed database for Twitter scale.
“The Tweet count feature is one of the last features running on Cassandra,” Group Product Manager Michael Ducker wrote in a blog post explaining the decision. “Like all engineering organizations, we have to make tradeoffs. The choices are to deprecate the feature, or rebuild it on a more modern tech stack. Rebuilding has its own costs, and would delay our work on other, more impactful offerings for our developer community”.
That makes sense, but its explanations as to why the decision makes sense for publishers are a little harder to swallow. According to Ducker, the share count “does not reflect the impact on Twitter of conversation about your content — it doesn’t count replies, quote Tweets, variants of your URLs, nor does it reflect the fact that some people Tweeting these URLs might have many more followers than others”.
On the face of it that seems fair enough. After all, if publishers want an accurate reflection of engagement there are plenty of tools out there that could give them a much more in-depth understanding than a simple share count. That kind of information is also far more important to advertisers than a simple share count. We all know that.
But share counts are about more than data. To a reader, a solid share count advertises that an article is worth reading, or at least includes a quality that makes it worth paying attention to. Moreover, it’s an extra incentive for readers to click the share button themselves. It’s just part of the way crowds work. To understand the effect, watch Derek Sivers’ TED talk on how movements start and replace dancing people with people hovering over the Twitter button on an article.
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It also does major damage to the myriad development houses whose products include the ability to show Twitter share counts. Beyond design and aesthetic choices, there’s little reason to use them if they can’t provide accurate share counts.
Perhaps the reason provided by Ducker which rankles most however is the assertion that what Twitter’s doing is pretty much what everyone else is doing.
“The count,” he writes “was built in a time where the only button on the web was from Twitter. Today, it’s most commonly placed among a number of other share buttons, few of which have counts”.
That is, to put it mildly, rubbish. You only have to, again, look at the top of this article to see how patently untrue that statement is. LinkedIn, which has made massive investments in content, still provides share counts. So does Facebook, the largest social network on the planet.
Both of these players are doing everything they can to entice people to share quality content on their platforms and their share counts remain wholly intact.
If Twitter’s going to thrive, as its shareholders need it to, then it needs to do everything in its power to keep publishers onside. Killing share counts might not see them neglecting Twitter all together, it’s too valuable for that, but it’s surely a sign that it’s not willing to compromise when it comes to their wants and desires. If this is the start of a greater trend, then Twitter may well be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.