Why Twitter Favorites Aren’t Really Your Favorite Tweets

Posted on Jun 10, 2011 | 102 comments


Twitter is an ephemeral service. It’s what I love about Twitter. When I’m in the mood to consume what my world is telling me right now I can “tune in” to Twitter and digest the rapid stream. I don’t really worry about missing stuff. If somebody wanted me to see something they’d @ message me, which I always read. And as I’ve written about in the past, I truly believe that Twitter networks are significantly different from other social networks.

The downside to this rapid stream is that at times you come across super interesting articles that you want to read but for which you don’t currently have the time. How do you deal with this scenario? For me, when I use Twitter on my Blackberry I email the Tweet to my gmail account and I read them later. I auto filter these in Gmail so I essentially get a reading list of future articles. I think a lot of people do this if their mobile Twitter client supports it.

The way that I used to deal with it on Twitter.com itself was to “favorite” the Tweet so I could come back to it later and I always suspected that’s how other people used favorites (other than Robert Scoble who seems to use it to create a reading list for other people. Check out what some enterprising entrepreneur from Finland did).

Recently Twitter added a new service that emails you when people RT you or favorite one of your Tweets. I started getting a ton of emails in my Gmail account saying people had favorited my Tweets, which I promptly fixed by filtering these. But seeing who was “favoriting” my Tweets made me think about this feature. I assumed they weren’t really their “favorite” tweets. I supposed maybe they were “liking” them in a Facebook sort of way. But I doubted it.

This morning I decided to ask on Twitter what people actually did. It’s another reason I love Twitter. You can have an instant discussion about a topic with a broad group of people. Nice. From the responses it would appear to me that 90%+ of the people use “favorite” like Instapaper – in other words as a way to save something to read later. 5% said to really “like” something and 5% said “a bit of both.

If I were Twitter I would rename this feature and make it clear that it’s saving the article to read later or some other clever title like “reading list.” If they feel the need to have a way to “like” something they could make this a separate feature. That way they could support both use cases.

Favorites never mattered until now. But since they are informing people that you have favorited their Tweet it might change behavior once people think about it. I might like to read an article but I don’t want that person a priori to think that I “favorited” it. I haven’t even read the damn thing yet. And telling them I favorited them feels a bit creepy to me (unless I intended to as a sign of respect or interest).

[update: Josh Elman of Twitter correctly points out that my data of responses isn't large enough and certainly not unbiased since I assume I have more technical followers. That said, there really are two use cases so I'd probably still recommend a "save" feature. Thanks, for weighing in, Josh. Another great Twitter use case - instant customer support!!]

What do you think? How do you use “favorite” today? Lest anybody think this is a criticism of Twitter – my goal was to have a dialog and see what other people think. Converting Twitter conversation to a threaded Disqus one.

  • http://blog.sixstringcpa.com Geoffrey

    I wrote a post the other day that touches on this in a bit broader context.

      http://blog.sixstringcpa.com/2011/06/few-thoughts-on-what-i-like.html

    I use favorite on Twitter mostly as a placeholder to go back & read.

  • http://twitter.com/eldusto Dustin Hershberger

    For me favorite is strictly “read it later”.  Twitter is slowing taking over as my “RSS feed”

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    I favourite tweets solely as a way to time-shift or device-shift content.

    A classic case of being underserved and having to cobble together a home-made solution.

    Changing the vernacular to ‘starred’ tweets would allow for multiple use-cases without having the overt-vote aspect that favouriting currently does

  • http://twitter.com/stilwebm Blair S

    Favoriting a tweet for me usually means I bumped the Favorite button by accident while reading, retweeting, or replying to tweets.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardF

    I don’t ! – I click on the link and instapaper it.  I wish you could instapaper straight from Twitter

  • Anonymous

    Agreed – I always thought there should be a “star”, so i could star things to read later.  I never really wanted to “favorite” things.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    I started to use the Favorite feature as a Like then switched to using it as a bookmark system.

    Agreed with the notifications now.  Like you, if I favorite something I typically have not read it, so I am in no way actually saying I “Like” this tweet/link/opinion, just that I’m interested to read in a longer form setting and create my opinion at that time.

  • http://twitter.com/UniqueVisitor Jeff Pester

    The real upside to creating “read later” and “like” buttons is that it would dramatically increase Twitter’s content surfacing capability. At the moment the Retweet is the best signal they can get (along with clickthroughs, although if a tweet doesn’t include a link then RT’s are all you’ve got).

    I’m fairly content that if users were given the ability to “like” a tweet that we’d get far more signal than we do with RT’s. RT’s are used for all sorts of gesturing that often times have little to do with actually liking the tweet.

  • Anonymous

    I used to email the link, but with the new client, a favorite as a bookmark, save for later. I also asked my friends this a while ago and got similar results as you. 

    It’s clear we need a delicious for twitter, if you will. The API allows for creating something like this (organization, types, bookmarking) , but other than a weekend hack, putting too much time building something on Twitter, that should be in the platform, seems like it is sure to end poorly. Plus it is unlikely to be used if it’s not in your primary client, which is it’s own battle. Maybe we can convince Loic to put it in Seesmic cross-networks.The interesting thing side effect is that Klout (a favorite of mine in the real sense, I do like the idea and have used it in experiments) counts favorites as one indicator of quality content, so there is a direct relation to the score calculation, which shows we have a way to go to map actions, user trends, intention, and influence.  

  • eyesparky

    Completely agree. This is exactly how I use favourites and can see a similar use case developing for Google’s +1. There are the occasional articles and tweets that are there just as a reminder or a trigger to action but the majority are read later or read again.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I have also been a little weirded out by the favorite feedback stats that users can get since I mostly use it to read later.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I gave up on RSS. Twitter is now my “curated RSS”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’d love to see a system where they support both options. Sometimes I really do want to signal that I loved a Tweet. Other times I’m reading later. Both use cases exist for me.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. That happens, too.

  • http://GBayer.com Greg Bayer

    It seems to me that the word ‘Favorite’ clearly imply ‘like’ verses ‘read it later’.  I agree that it’s different than a Facebook ‘like’, but it really doesn’t make sense to call a reading list your ‘Favorites’.  Because of this implied meaning, I choose to use other reading list options/services and reserve Twitter’s Favorite button for permanently liking something in a uniquely Twitter way (which is still being defined).

  • http://www.charliecrystle.com Charlie Crystle

    Mine simply show up in my  Jawaya.com profile. 

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Definitely use it like Instapaper. And I always hope when I “unfavorite” that the person won’t think that means I dislike their post. :)

    I’d sure love to have one centralized “read later” service that can handle links and email with attachments. It would be my “non urgent but still don’t want to miss it” inbox.

  • http://www.marianneworley.com Marianne Worley

    I use the Favorite button as a “Read Later” function. Of course, then I forget to go back and “un-favorite” it after I’ve read it…so I have started getting emails too. Guess I’ll add that to my to-do list!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And thanks for the link on Twitter to Bijan’s post. I hadn’t seen that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    my sense, too. thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I didn’t know that about Klout. I suppose a “read later” is still a sign of influence, though

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think Twitter hadn’t thought through this potential “creepiness” factor. It would go away if there were separate “read later” and “favorite” actions

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    My point was that because Twitter doesn’t have a “read it later” button they are using favorite as an alternative. So it becomes confusing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I just assumed it was because you didn’t like me anymore ;-)

  • Anonymous

    Agree, and it’s basically your point – two different signals, which can be used for different amplification. Plus, I should point out other than Joe Fernandez, no one really knows how the signal-to-score works with Klout, so I don’t want to overstate it – I’ve seen the effect and gotten that feedback from a few folks who worked there (b/c Klout is part of my pitch!), but over time I am sure that will get tweaked correctly, too. 

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    The other thing is that I still use Google Reader so I rarely favorite your
    posts in twitter IF I can tell it’s your post. But I’ll favorite when I
    think you’re sharing a link somewhere else.

    I wish it was easier, but such is life with shortened links.

    » Aaron Klein
    Sent from my Android

  • http://twitter.com/bradrick Brad Rickman

    I use favoriting almost exclusively as a go-back-later-and-take-a-closer-look button. “Retweet” seems more like “Like” to me – you want to call others’ attention to it. “Favorite” is just for me.

  • Zachary Reiss-Davis

    Favorite means “read it later” or “I need to reference this later” for me as well.  It has nothing to do with if I like a Tweet, although it may not be “read the hyperlink in it later” as much as “I need to reply to this via email later” for example.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    Here is Bijan’s post: http://bit.ly/ir3zv9

    I think that publishers need to start doing a better job enabling their followers to quickly decide short/long format intention of their content.  Twitter as the platform should be assisting in this but publishers ultimately need to understand the setting in which their content should be consumed.

    When you have something on your mind all other non-related content becomes noise.   This is a problem with bookmarking as you lose that immediate interest impact that caused you to bookmark.  When you read later you don’t have the same alignment of thoughts/interests that caused that content to be important.  I have a feeling most people rarely get to “Saved item Inbox Zero”…

    My startup Showmio is focused on Immediate Interest Relevance based on the interest vertical of TV .  We filter your social streams and published content to only bring to you what is related to your TV shows.  I am really excited what we are working on right now which is extracting real time social sentiment around TV episodes, creating content based on that info, and delivering to those tuned in to that same real time experience.

  • http://www.qayto.com Ryan G. Campbell

    I think that like most people on here, Favorite means nothing more to me than “read it later” . I would be interested in seeing some stats on this.

  • http://twitter.com/anitahart Anita Hart

    That is why I use the Twittelator client. It lets you save articles for later reading, separate from favorites.

  • matt newberg

    Mark, have you checked out TweetGrabber.com? You can automagically link your favorite tweets straight into Instapaper. Not only that, but you can follow guys like Scoble and have their tweets directly sent there too.

  • http://twitter.com/collinrwest Collin West

    This is an issue I run into a lot reading my twitterfeed on the go thank you for putting a spotlight on it.

    Twitter: Please add a read later feature!

  • Tee7202

    The twitter favorite buttonn is my place holder. I will read it later.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Agree that pushing ‘Favorite’ implies a low number, being twits that are something to praise. 

    Use RT and you can find your RT’s.

    RL would be something smart… and something Twitter can add on their own. 

    The main thing is step away from FB calling the shots… yes, their ‘Like’ is so yesterday… that doesn’t mean you have to come up with a different version of ‘Like’ to simply bookmark.

    Otherwise, it would be better to keep a ‘Favorite’ option to signify someone has tweeted something truly great… then encourage originality vs. linking and/or copy from a link and claim it yours (I’ve noticed some doing).

  • Russell Schoenbeck

    I use Instapaper for a ‘read later’ and I only favorite quotes or quotable tweets!

  • http://twitter.com/_DaveWalters Dave Walters

    Once again, you’ve reached into my brain for a post :-) I’ve been cranking on a startup based on this question for about 30 days. In reading the comments, I’m now absolutely positive the answer is much more than a Twitter feature. In fact, Twitter favorites might just be the easiest-to-snag content.

    I think your post (and my startup) are really looking at managing the information deluge that’s only accelerated since the advent of Twitter. I’d also contend it’s not just about “reading it later” as most people will report. I think the Holy Grail really is how can I make more sense of the information. In fact, I’d bet most people never really do “read it later” – and therefore any knowledge contained simply falls by the wayside.

    It’s absolutely amazing how quickly this idea gets into the deep water of data visualization and language processing. I’d love to trade some DMs on the topic!

  • http://www.brennanknotts.com Brennan Knotts

    No offense to  Josh Elman since he only  had 140 characters to respond, but the question isn’t what do people “assume” favorite” is for, it’s what do people actually “use” it for.

    I think most people understand how Twitter would like us to use the favorite feature, but their intended use isn’t the most useful to us. In a way, this is par for the course with Twitter. It’s my understanding that users unintended behavior has driven features from the beginning including @ replies and hashtags.

    Low sample size? True. But I think your conclusions are more directionally correct than Mr. Elman’s.

  • Anonymous

    Ditto here too.   For the most part, I e-mail myself a tweet to read later on a larger screen or when I have time.   In the oft chance I use the ‘favorite’ button its for the same purpose you describe — to read later.   I generally don’t ‘favorite’ tweets for any other reason, but then again I also don’t ‘like’ too many things on Facebook either.

  • http://kontrary.com Rebecca Thorman

    I use Favorites to save tweet-stimonials about my writing and work. Then I use the Twitter plugin to display those on my site in the footer.

  • http://billock.net BrentBillock

    If you visit favstar.fm, you’ll see a rather large population of users who view the Facebook star as a “Like” button. Most of these are humorous tweets that get a star of approval from others.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    I think a “save” button would be more accurate.  

    Personally, I do not “favorite” as a way to signal anything to others or to create an identity.  And if someone actually tried to learn about me based on my favorites, it would be a skewed view.

    I once used the Favorite button for “save as reference” or “read later” and an occasional actual “favorite” –and then there was a day that a glitch in the system wouldn’t let me “unfavorite” so I haven’t used the button since or looked at my list.  

    I think the reason I even tried to unfavorite was that I saw more emphasis being placed on “favorites” and that made me think twice about what I had in that list.  Now I just don’t care.

    BTW, just checked and the “unfavorite” buton is working properly.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “their ‘Like’ is so yesterday”
    Haha!

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    BTW, I love how we all seem to think we are part of Twitter’s product development team.
    Although, in a way, I guess we are.  One of the things I loved about Twitter from the start was the sense of shared real time product development.

    I hope they never forget that this is part of their charm.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    How about a “nominate for Twitter hall-of-fame” button.

    Of course a shorter title would be needed.  And it would get gamed.  Oh well, so much for that idea.

  • http://nosql.mypopescu.com Alex Popescu

    As for many others here the favorite list is my read later list. But once taken out of the timely Twitter context, I like to visualize them differently (in a more readable form). Here is how I consume all my read later stuff: http://pinreadr.appspot.com/u:alexp/unread

  • http://termpaperwriter.org/ custom term paper

    Excellent thoughts and very worth project to push forward.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    ;D

  • http://flavors.me/joaopmgoncalves João Gonçalves

    I only use Favorite when I love some tweets. I don’t use it neither to read it later neither to like it as Facebook. In the extreme case, it would be like a Facebook Love Button. That’s it, a Love Button.

  • http://blog.sixstringcpa.com Geoffrey

    I agree with your statement:

    “Personally, I do not “favorite” as a way to signal anything to others or to create an identity.  And if someone actually tried to learn about me based on my favorites, it would be a skewed view.”

    In fact, that was the reason for the post I did on my own blog that I referenced. I hit that button for a few different reasons. Anyone trying to mining any sort of meaning would be in for a shock.