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Twitter Algorithmic Timeline: Why I For One Welcome Our New Overlords

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.

Original post:
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?
NEWS: Twitter to Introduce Algorithmic News Feed
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:

Twitter deaf to user requests.

Image courtesy of Ann Smarty on Facebook

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.
[Tweet “An algorithmic feed could actually be Twitter’s salvation. Find out why”]

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.
Beyonce wants all the tweets.
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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Thoughts on “Twitter Algorithmic Timeline: Why I For One Welcome Our New Overlords”

  1. Thanks for taking the courage to go against the rage in this controversial potential decision, Mark!
    I see where you are coming from and I can see why this would be potentially useful for Twitter. Personally I would like them to give us filters so we can sometimes cut through the noise. I don’t mind if this algorithm is optional and not the default, but I do worry that they are becoming less distinctive and more like Facebook with every move they make.
    Twitter have very passionate users – users that along the way have shaped Twitter and made it what it is today. Hashtags, mentions and retweets all came from users. Twitter have turned their backs on their users (particularly developers) on a number of occasions and I just hope they tred carefully in their bid to become profitable.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Unfortunately, the “passionate users,” the very ones that are raging and proclaiming the End of Life As We Know It on #RIPTwitter today, are obviously not enough to keep Twitter afloat. They desperately need new people, and need to be able to sustain their interest, which is what they’ve been failing at for years now.
    But as I said in the post, I definitely agree that making this an on-off choice, (with off the default for current active users, and on for newbies) would be ideal.

  3. Add me to the group that does not want twitter to tell me what I want to see. I hate the while you were away collections and every time they put that on my timeline I click it off and tell them I do not want to see it. I do not follow so many feeds that I can not keep up with them all so I want to see every single post and the order in which they posted. My biggest problem with Twitter at the moment is that I have no easy way to start reading from the last tweet I stopped at.
    I hate that facebook constantly tries to switch my timeline to top stories. I always change it to most recent and have to do that with distressing frequency. I have no problem with them putting in the new option as long as it is in fact an option and if they actually respect my setting choices and leave it as I set it. If facebook would adopt that same policy I would have no issues with either platform.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Lee. I expect there are a number among my readers who are like you, and who feel the same way. But here’s the thing: you’re the minority of users. A tiny, tiny minority.
    And the major social networks know this. They’re not dumb (well, not most of the time). They watch their metrics. They know that despite what the average user says they want when you ask them, giving them what your algo says they really want works better. Users stay more engaged and use the service more. Facebook proved this; it was inevitable Twitter would have to follow some day.
    But it’s appearing that there may be hope for guys like you. The emerging rumor today, fed by some Twitter insiders, is that while the algo feed is inevitable, the chrono isn’t going away. I take that to mean there may be a switchable choice between the two.

  5. Mark – “Someone” needs to be the voice in the wilderness, the light in the darkness, the Tweety Bird to the Sylvester so it might as well be you.
    I have fretted and worried about social media changes in the past and have learned that 1 – I can’t do anything about it and 2 – I forgot what it was they had changed. I just know that Twitter is an essential business and personal tool for me. If this is what they think they need to do to keep Twitter moving forward – great.
    Thanks for getting rid of the potential terrorists. Now let’s see if we can work on the hateful, personal attacks on the platform.

  6. Hi Mark, I am not sure if I would be that concerned. I wonder how it will effect Twitter Lists? I do go through the news feed occasionally, but I follow who I follow and find their tweets or I go to my Twitter Lists about a certain subject. I also find my stories, get ideas, and learn through Twitter lists. It’s not that I gave up on the news feed specifically but my lists better align with my interests – not my news feed. That being said if they can use machine learning and Ai to make Twitter and the news feed more appealing to me and my interests I would give it a shot.

  7. Great post and thanks for sharing it today in the Blab.
    I agree that Twitter needs to do something. The onboarding process is not simple and even for all the “Twitter” experts if we look back to how we used it then compared to today, we’d laugh.
    Over 1 Billion individuals have signed up for the tool and yet only 300 Million continue to use it. That is something that needs to be fixed and improved.
    I loved listening to the earnings call and found what Jack had to say to be positive and love how they’ll be focusing on making it a platform that will be easier for the newbie to become comfortable and see the value to stay monthly. That’s good for all marketers.

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Mark Traphagen

Mark Traphagen was our Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital until February of 2019. He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.

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