UPDATE 18 March 2015: Twitter announced today that the rollout of the algorithmic timeline is now complete to all users, and that there have been very few opt-outs. In addition, they report that since introducing the new timeline, they have seen a rise “in things like per-user favorites, retweets, replies, tweets, and daily usage.”
UPDATE 10 February 2016: In a blog post today Twitter announced that the new algorithmic feed is now rolling out to all users. Here are the particulars:
- It is completely optional and opt-in. You have to enable it in your settings (see the link to their post above for instructions).
- The update does not affect your entire timeline. If you enable the option, each time you log on to your account you will see a selection of tweets at the top of your timeline that Twitter’s algorithm thinks you would’ve liked to have seen.
- All the elevated tweets are from accounts you follow. There is no indication yet if advertisers will be able to pay to show up in this section.
- Below the elevated tweets will be your regular, reverse-chronological timeline as you’ve always known it.
- At any time you can pull down on the timeline to refresh it, which will remove the elevated tweets for that session and show you the most recent tweets at the top again.
In early February 2016, the Internet found yet another reason to declare the death of Twitter.
True that sort of talk has been around for a while now, what with Twitter’s revolving executive door and plunging stock prices. So what caused #RIPTwitter to be a top trending hashtag on its own network for the entire weekend of 6 February 2016?
What does that mean?
According to the Buzzfeed news post linked above, Twitter is planning to introduce a news feed that would elevate tweets to the top of a user’s Twitter stream based on an algorithm that determines the likelihood the user might be interested in the tweet.
In a small way, Twitter has been toying with this idea for almost a year, having introduced last February it’s “while you were away” feature that elevates top tweets that went out since the user last logged on.
This would replace Twitter’s traditional reverse-chronological news feed, and in the eyes of many Twitter users raging last night, make Twitter “just another Facebook.” Hence #RIPTwitter, which continued to top the Twitter trending list right up until the Super Bowl that Sunday.
About 24 hours after the Buzzfeed story published, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally broke radio silence to proclaim that “We never planned to reorder timelines next week.” Pundits are noting the inclusion of “next week,” and speculating that implementation of some kind of algorithm may still come, just not in the next seven days. [Update: as it happens, it did come, just four days later. Dorsey was technically accurate; it is not a complete reordering of the timeline. It simply features a few “tweets you probably wouldn’t want to miss” at the top of your timeline, and only if you opt-in to the feature.]
Dorsey went on to tweet that Twitter is firmly committed to “real time” and is seeking to make it even better. Dorsey did not explicitly rule out an algorithmic feed. He simply guaranteed that a real-time feed would always be available.
The Update is Coming: Here’s What It Will Look Like
The Verge has released screenshots of what it says is the new timeline Twitter plans to introduce, obtained from someone in the beta test group.
As you can see, some highly-engaged tweets from nine and ten hours ago are elevated above others from just two hours ago.
The Verge story went on to reveal two important factors: the algorithmically-elevated tweets are mixed in amongst the real time tweets, and it is optional; you have to turn it on in your settings.
But meanwhile, back at the #RIPTwitter funeral service…
Along with the 140-character tweet limit (also allegedly an endangered species), the chronological timeline that shows every tweet from accounts a user follows has been considered one of the two sacred pillars of Twitter by its long term hardcore users.
And now Twitter (allegedly) wants to change all that.
Why I’m Not Heaping Tweets on the Bonfire
In a follow-up article to their newsbreak about the rumored change in Twitter’s news feed, Buzzfeed sardonically filled a section supposedly listing all the tweets in favor of the change with “This section left intentionally blank.”
I’m about to step boldly into that void.
I don’t see this change as necessarily a bad thing for Twitter. In fact, it might be the first smart, user-friendly move they’ve made in a long, long time.
A refreshing change from:
While it’s true that few, if any users, have been actually clamoring for an algorithmic news feed, it’s my prediction that once they get over it, they’ll like it.
- Before I get into my reasons why let me insert one big caveat
- they’ll be far more likely to accept it IF Twitter gives them a choice. There should be a switch to easily flip between chronological and algorithmic news feeds. The good news: if the Verge article linked above is correct, there will be such a switch. And users who don’t turn it off permanently can still quickly clear the elevated tweets by just scrolling down their timeline and then back up again (same as with “While you were away” tweets now).
[UPDATE: Now that the update is public, we know that it is not only optional, it is opt-in. That is, the user has to intentionally turn it on in his or her settings.]
When Facebook implemented an algorithmic news feed, it failed at first to offer a choice to opt out (and still makes it difficult), resulting in much tumult and bad press. Twitter would be smart to make this optional, with it ON by default for new users (for reasons I’ll explain below).
Why an Algorithmic Twitter Feed Could Be a Good Thing
Whenever I hear an outcry like this against change on a social network (remember all the “1 Million Against the New Facebook ____” groups?), I always keep one thing in mind:
People very often say they want one thing but in reality, choose the opposite.
That’s why I turn a skeptical eye toward most consumer or user surveys. For example, when Facebook implemented its algorithmic news feed, almost any user you asked said they didn’t like it and didn’t want it. But here’s what Facebook saw: user time on site went up.
Why? We say we want to see everything from the people and pages we follow, but we really don’t, not if we follow a significant number. The truth is, a great deal of what our friends and liked brands post isn’t all that great, or doesn’t fit our interests.
At the same time, machine learning is enabling algorithms to get better and better at discerning what we do like, what does interest us.
And that’s why I think an algorithmic feed could be Twitter’s salvation.
Social Media Signal vs. Noise Problem
People have been discussing the problem of signal vs. noise in social media almost since social media was a thing. As social media became the next big thing (in the view of some, actually became “the Internet”), the problem inevitably grew. With so many networks, so much content, something new to look at every few seconds, people feel overwhelmed. Some, including a growing number of younger people, are abandoning the big networks altogether in favor of cozier, more private, and less noisy niche networks.
If the larger, traditional social networks are to survive, they have to solve the signal vs. noise problem.
This problem is perhaps more acute for Twitter than for any other social network. With its 140-character limit and one image of video per post, content flies by faster, and has less opportunity to grip and hold users, than on any other major network.
So here’s the truth that all the #RIPTwitter tweeters deny but know in their hearts: the average user, confronted by a stream of disjointed, unconnected, mostly non-relevant tweets goes away…and may never come back.
And Twitter knows that too.
Here’s my prediction: if Twitter does implement an algorithmic news feed, once the #RIPTwitter outrage dies down, they will indeed see a significant upswing in overall user time-on-site and engagement. And I also predict it will help them bring in more new users, a serious weakness for Twitter right now.
As one who grumbled against the Facebook algorithmic news feed, I finally had to admit it: once I let Facebook take over the news feed, it got better, and much more addictive. Maybe not so good for me, but very good for Facebook.
So that’s why I for one welcome our new algorithmic overlords.
How about you? Does a possible change in the Twitter news feed concern you? Outrage you? If so, can you see past your nostalgia or blazing anger to the possible benefits for the average user? Let me know in the comments!
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