Why Twitter Needs Channels

Twitter is a wonderful communications tool and while it does many things really well, there are a few things it doesn’t do so well. One of those things is having discussions about specific topics with specific groups of people. This is often known as a TwitChat.

The Problem

I participate in a number of weekly TwitChats. These TwitChats are often very educational and can be a lot of fun; that is, for the participants. For everyone else, they can be a real hassle.

The problem is that while you’re having a heated debate about the merits of origami (no offense to origami fans), you’re going to have followers who couldn’t care less. Moreover, if you fire off fifty or sixty tweets during an hour long TwiChat, you can really flood some of your follower’s streams. I’ve had plenty of people unfollow me because of this and if you participate in TwitChats, I’m sure you have too.

The Solution

Now, you might say that Hash Tags (#) are the solution, but they’re not. The Hash Tag evolved as a way for Twitter users to more easily find tweets on a specific topic. TwitChats are dependent upon them (just add a #Topic to any tweet and set up a search to find them).

Unfortunately (as mentioned above), when people whom you follow are participating in TwitChats, if you don’t filter out those tweets, you’re going to see every single tweet they send. Also, while Twitter does nothing to help you filter out unwanted Hash Tags, TweetDeck does have a filter feature, but I’ve never bothered to use it. Have you?

Finally, while I find setting up searches in Twitter and TweetDeck easy, many people simply do not. However, even if they do set up searches, it still does nothing about a user’s stream being flooded with unwanted tweets. Fortunately, there is a solution that Twitter could implement, and that solution is creating Channels.

How Channels Can Benefit the User

A Channel would simply be a Twitter stream that is parallel to the main Twitter stream, but isolated from that stream just as one TV channel is isolated from other TV channels. A user would only see that Channel if they intentionally visited that Channel’s page or followed it.

When in a Channel, the user could dispense with adding a Hash Tag to each tweet as everything being tweeted in that Channel should be on topic. Alternately, the user could use a Hash Tag if they’re discussing a related subtopic, or they could create a new channel (a SubChannel) under a main topic Channel, and it could extend from there.

For example, a Directory of Channels might look like this:

  • Main Channel: Medicine, or Healthcare (whatever)
    • SubChannel: Diabetes
      • Sub(Sub)Channel: Type 1 Diabetes
      • Sub(Sub)Channel: Type 2 Diabetes
        • Sub(Sub, Sub)Channel: Type 2 Diabetes Research

We can figure out the nomenclature for SubChannels later, but I think the above structure is clear and simple enough.

A Few More Notes on Channels

  • Channels would differ from Lists because while you can follow individual Lists, you still see every tweet of everyone on that list regardless of topic. Channels would create topic specific conversations.
  • Users could set up Channels as being either Public or Private and invite participants.

How Channels can Benefit Twitter

While Channels could be setup by any Twitter user for any topic, they can also drive revenue for Twitter in two ways.

  • Branded Channels: Companies and/or brands could setup their own channels and SubChannels and pay Twitter for the privilege. Perhaps Twitter could even charge different rates depending on Channel size. For example, $X for a Channel with 100 users following it and $XXX for a Channel with 100,000 users following it.
  • Targeted Advertising: Since, by definition, Channels are topic specific, Twitter could charge much higher ad rates for Sponsored Tweets in those channels. Why? Because tweets in those Channels would be noticed by the target audience at much higher rates than on the main Twitter stream. Additionally, the Channel audience would be much more likely to respond to a Call to Action.

Btw, I know there are a lot of third-party services that enable groups in one fashion or another. In my experience, they don’t work all that well. Also, they tie you a specific third-party service and given Twitter’s recent history with their third-party developers, I would expect most of those services to disappear in the near future.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Neal Wiser is Vice President of Digital Strategy and Operations at The ODM Group where he leads teams in the creation and execution of digital marketing campaigns. You can follow Neal on Twitter (his handle is @NealWiser). Neal is also the Cofounder and Co-host of the Addicted to Social Media podcast. You can also read is blog at NealWiser.com.


  • June 24, 2011

    I think you just invented message boards/forums and undone the uniqueness of Twitter, which is that every tweet goes into the same stream, visible by all.

  • June 24, 2011

    Absolutely and we agree!!

    Now you could wait for channels or you could host your chat on a platform that gives you control to turn-on-off your Tweets for your chat.

    We’re doing that at http://stanzr.com and we have a number of private beta customers that are #winning with this approach!

  • June 24, 2011

    Neal, great post. I’m curious which third-party services you have tried that failed to meet your needs (disclosure: my startup arguably falls in this camp). I think this is exactly the type of third-party service that Twitter does want; it’s Twitter’s responsibility to be the firehose of information, while their supporting ecosystem does valuable things with the content in that firehose.

    I would also suggest that while a large amount of content is shared via Twitter, there are other channels worth aggregating information from and into a corresponding channel. Not every blog post, for example, resonates in the Twittersphere, even if it provides relevant topical content.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • June 24, 2011

    Don’t see the point of setting up separate channel. If you’re worried about spamming your followers stream then just direct the tweet to someone you’re discussing with in chat. The ones following hash-tag will still see tweet but rest won’t. I usually direct my tweets to @q1 or @q2 (question 2) which diverts it from spamming my followers.

  • June 24, 2011

    I can see the appeal of this and yet the fractionation of discussion into special interests has a downside and we are seeing that now with personalised seach creating a situation where we are more and more within a controlled environment wth little chance for new idea and opposing views. Alarmingly, this is happening without many even being aware their environment is becoming more rarified and one’s biases being reinforced.

    The jury may be out on this but it seems something of a poisoned chalice to me.

  • June 24, 2011

    It’s an interesting post Neal and I can see Lindy’s point, however there will always be the need to “take the conversation offline” to some extent , where we would like to discuss for example something business-related amongst your team. We are using Yammer for this where for example I can share tweets into Yammer with #yam or, if I want to go “offline” for a team discussion we can continue the discussion within Yammer.

    To Lindy’s point on personalised search, I read an interesting post on Lifehacker this week entitled: “The Problem With Your Google Search Results (And What You Can Do About It)” which suggests that we may be unaware that our search results are being filtered by up to “57 criteria” See http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2011/06/the-problem-with-your-google-search-results-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/

    I use Hootsuite not TweetDeck so haven’t tried the filtering feature which I know people who do use that feature for example to your point Neal, to filter out #hashtags where they have no interest in the particular topic or conversation. I have also lost followers due to rampant tweeting on a particular hashtag whether it is live-tweeting an event/conference/cause or supporting someone or something. It doesn’t bother me though – each to their own. I do work around this at present with multiple Twitter accounts so for example if it is a technology related area I will switch to @AskTonyIT and tweet there, occasionally reminding or announcing on my main handle @hollingsworth that I am doing so. This leads me to tell you how your concept of Channels is a good idea but will add even more complexity to Twitter for new users in particular. I wonder if they will implement it. I like the idea to have that option to tweet in amongst a group. In particular I would like the ability to search within a group of people’s tweets too – something LinkedIn lets you do now which is fantastic. The idea is if I have 100 people in a Twitter List who I have “curated” for a particular interest area I would like to be able to search just their tweets to get to the proverbial needle in the haystack.

    This is a great post, thanks for sharing it Neal.

    Tony Hollingsworth
    @hollingsworth – curating as @AskTonyIT @AskTonyFood @AskTonyArt (no doubt more to come! :-)

  • June 24, 2011

    The solution is simple, Neal, and is something I already do: When participating in a Twitter chat and inspired to add to it, I begin the tweet as a reply to someone. That way, I don’t bottleneck someone following me. Besides, why else would I jump in if not to reply to someone?

  • June 24, 2011

    Ari’s point is a good one, but if falls down as soon as his other followers are also following that person in the @mention Arguably if they were following both Ari and the @mention they would WANT to hear the conversation, but not always I would posit. The need for channels still exists.

  • June 25, 2011

    I agree with Ari – when I participate in a twitter chat I tend to use replies a lot to keep the tweets out of the streams of the majority of my followers.

    I think it is important not to partition the chat from the twitter ecosystem completely as this stops new people from discovering that the chat exists.

    If you want to keep it off twitter – why have a Twitter Chat in the first place?

  • June 25, 2011
    Tanisha Rule

    The premise makes sense, but part of Twitter’s appeal includes the ability to see different conversations take place and to perhaps join in on some of them. I agree that flooding followers’ timelines with tweets increases your chance of being unfollowed. Since that is the case, maybe Twitter isn’t the best forum for lengthy discussions.
    Great post. Gives me something to ponder.

  • June 26, 2011

    After reading this article I ask myself, why nobody already implemented channels on Twitter. I totally agree with you, that it is a a very useful marketing tool, but I find it very hard to follow discussions, too. But at most I am annoyed by all the spammers on Twitter! Big up for channels!!!

  • June 27, 2011

    You can still search for a relative topic, or whatever you wish to find out. You choose who you follow to ensure that your recieving the reason your on Twitter in the first place.
    Channels are unneccersary for Twitter, its easy to navigate accross as it is due to its simplicity. There are other forums dedicated to specific discussions/information ext, are we all too scared to jump off Twitters Wagon to discuss on other sites or is it that we thrive from letting all who follow us in on discussions with others to show our ingenuity and social decorum? Show off our Twitorial status??
    In any case, channels would only make Twitter complicated, long winded and … Boring!
    @collintine-good tip!

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