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Why Social Media Networks Monkey with Your Timeline – Here’s Why #69

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One-by-one nearly all the major social networks have moved away from a strict chronological timeline or newsfeed to one highly controlled by an algorithm. And each time that happens, many power users object strongly and scratch their heads. Why do social networks keep monkeying with our timelines?

Find out in this video! (Transcript and links below)

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Eric: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of these social networks and more are monkeying with our timelines. What are they up to, Mark?

Mark: Well, each of them to varying degrees no longer shows a straight up reverse chronological timeline.
Eric: A reverse chrono what?

Mark: A reverse chronological timeline. That’s where your feed of posts shows with the most recent post at the top and then backward in time order. You were always looking at the most recent posts from your friends or others you follow whenever you logged into the network.

Eric: How have they changed that?

Mark: Well, each platform has implemented its changes differently. Basically, it means that they employ an algorithm to try to bring posts which they think will most likely interest you to the top of your timeline.

Eric: It sounds like a good idea.

Mark: Yeah, well not everyone agrees. When each network announced the introduction of filtered timelines, there was an uproar among the hardcore users. The protest was probably loudest over Twitter’s announcement, as many long-time Twitter users consider the chronological timeline a sacred part of Twitter’s appeal.

Eric: Why were users so upset over these changes?

Mark: Certainly part of the rancor is due to our natural resistance to change. Our social networks begin to feel like a favorite old pair of shoes. They are so familiar and comfortable we forget about the shoes themselves and just enjoy walking around in them. In the same way, we get comfortable with our social networks. Their interface fades into the background and we become absorbed with the content. When the interface changes, it can feel like the dog ate our favorite shoes.

But more than our dislike of change is in play. People also believe that they want it all. They say they want to see everything posted by those they follow. It’s like when we go to a restaurant with a buffet. We know we’re paying the same price whether we eat a few things or many, so we try to eat as much as we can to get our money’s worth.

Eric: And, despite the protests and the facts of human nature you’ve listed, we’ve seen network after network going to a filtered or algorithmic timeline. What are they doing when users say they don’t want it?

Mark: Well, I always tell anyone I’m mentoring about marketing to not believe what people say they want, follow their behavior. When surveyed, people will say they don’t want algorithmic filtering of their timelines. There’s a simple reason why the networks do it anyway and never go back. Their own metrics show that people stay longer and engage more when their feeds are filtered.

Eric: Why is that?

Mark: Well, I think that the truth is machine learning algorithms really are getting better at figuring out what we’ll be more interested in. It’s no longer as simple as it was in the early days of Facebook’s EdgeRank. EdgeRank just showed you more of posts that your friends had engaged with. Today’s algorithms can dig deeper to surface content that is likely to be relevant and interesting to you even if it isn’t yet popular.

The signal to noise problem was especially acute on Twitter because of the rapid-fire nature of posts limited to 140 characters. Once a user starts following a lot of people or a few hundred accounts, their timeline in real time jumps wildly from topic to topic. It can be a jarring and uncomfortable experience. Unless you’ve opted out of the feature, now whenever you log in to or the Twitter smartphone app now, the first tweets you see are selected for you by the algorithm. They are all from accounts you follow but could be from any time since your previous login. Swiping to the top of your timeline takes you back to the most recent tweets.

I only get to dip into Twitter a few times each day. Eric wants me to do work. I know I’m always missing tons of updates from people I follow. The new algorithm has already been helpful as it has shown me tweets I’m glad I didn’t miss but would have before.

Eric: Thanks, Mark. For more of Mark’s thinking on why social networks filter your feeds, and why he thinks Twitter doing this could actually help turn Twitter around, see his article here.

Mark: Thank you. To get our future episodes, follow us on Twitter, or search for Perficient Digital on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram.

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Thoughts on “Why Social Media Networks Monkey with Your Timeline – Here’s Why #69”

  1. Zara, did you know you can train it to be better? Remember, an algorithm is only as good as the signals you send it. If your Facebook feed seems “off,” you’ve probably (quite inadvertently) been sending it the wrong signals.
    Robert Scoble’s 22 Tips for Improving Your Facebook Feed really works, and revolutionized my FB experience. You don’t have to do all of them, but the more you do the better your feed will become.
    One update since he published that: if there are people or pages whose content you know you want to see, you can mark them to “show first” in your feed.

  2. That was really good explanation. Social media are a big deal of our life and everything about their activities including their algorithms update should be well known to all their users. unfortunately only few people know these info. thanks for taking your time to explain in this video.

  3. I also assume it is a way for them to control what I see. This could be for marketing g reasons and could also be tweaked for political reasons or whatever else might motivate them. Even if it isn’t happening now, the possibility is troubling.
    I realize many people might like it, but what I don’t understand is why some don’t give the option to users who want a default reverse chronological. Strava is a recent site to jump on this bandwagon and it’s crazy annoying

  4. I’m not going to explore any conspiracy theories, but I will address your second point. As I said in the video, even though people say they want to see all of the posts from friends or people they follow, the platforms have tested this and found that when they do show everything, people use the platform less. It becomes overwhelming, and people don’t realize how many of their friend’s posts really aren’t that interesting. It’s a classic case of where what people say they want isn’t what they show they want by their behavior.

  5. Thanks for the reply.
    I don’t know that it’s a conspiracy. Facebook already uses the timeline to make ads look like friends are posting things and it stands to reason they will continue to tweak it for marketing. I don’t know if they shift content based on what they like or do t but it would be within their capacity to do so and wouldn’t be a total shocker of social media platforms had an agenda beyond user engagement and marketing
    I agree, when someone has a ton of people they follow, there’s no way to see everything and some sorting can be of value. However when a user doesn’t follow many people, or when content makes the most sense when chronological it can be a mess. It doesn’t bother me that the curating happens. It bothers me that they don’t give people the choice to use it or not based off of how they engage the site.

  6. A bit late to the game but I’ll throw in my two cents anyway. The problem I see with everything explaining the need for algorithms seem to all make the same mistake which is that all users follow a large number of accounts/friends/etc. I personally know many people, and I’m one of them, who are very particular about who we follow. When I say that I want to see it all it isn’t BS. I follow a handful of accounts on each site so it’s not overwhelming to see everything. It seems the fewer people you follow, the more annoying the algorithm is because it becomes ever more apparent of the re-ordering and filtering of the content. The platforms push you to follow more and more people, then mess with your feed saying you’d be overwhelmed by everything. They’re trying to solve a problem they’re causing and (almost all of them) refuse to let you avoid the problem entirely. At least Facebook allows you to temporarily switch over to Most Recents. It’s inexcusable to not have a chronological feed at least as a temporary option somewhere in the settings for people who aren’t following 2,000 accounts. Their metrics may show their algorithms result in more usage from users, but I can promise you the more frustrated I get with my non-chronological timeline, the less I use the services. They’re driving me away by not providing it, not getting me to stay longer.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Brad. For me, I think social networks are struggling to show their enduring value. There are so many other ways to connect today.

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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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