A Twitter Algorithm Won’t Ruin Anything. THERE’S NO GROUP more eager to kvetch than the Twitter faithful, and nothing to send them spiraling toward mutiny like changes to their timelines. No surprise, then, that whenBuzzFeed reported over the weekend that the social network would soon display tweets not by chronology but by algorithmic voodoo, the responses were vitriolic—even by Twitter standards. It’s time to take a deep breath.
While Twitter has become indispensable to a core group of users, it’s had a difficult time attracting new people to the platform. Understandably! To the uninitiated, the cascade of reverse-chronological tweets can be incomprehensible. Other attempts to make itself more accessible, likerevamping the homepage, haven’t generated much momentum. So now Twitter is reportedly rethinking how it presents tweets entirely, attempting to isolate the signal from the noise. Twitter devotees are angry. They shouldn’t be. Because while we don’t know with any authority exactly what an algorithmic Twitter will be or when it is coming—the BuzzFeed report was purposefully non-specific—we do have a pretty good guess, and that’s because a smaller version of it is already happening.
The Algorithm Among Us
In January of last year, Twitter introduced “While you were away…”, a feature that greets people who’ve been away from the service for a while with a handful of select tweets they might have missed. It’s an innocuous way to get caught up on things you would otherwise not see, unless you’re willing to scroll for an hour through digital chaff to get there. Anecdotally, it’s not perfect; my roundup tends to include at least one tweet from the same two or three people, and they’re often tweets I wouldn’t have minded missing. (Which, honestly, are there any tweets you’d really mind missing?).
Still, it’s useful. I feel caught up. And when I’m done, it’s right back into the never-ending chronological stream that I’ve curated for myself. No fuss, no impotent anger over the sanctity of my timeline.
“While you were away…” matters because this is, from what accounts we have so far, a bite-sized representation of algorithmically sorted Twitter. Or so says Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who responded to the flurry of panic with, naturally, a brief series of tweets.
According to reports from people who have actually used the algorithmic version of Twitter from both the Verge andThe Guardian, the next stage of the platform’s evolution simply expands on “While you were away…” a proportional amount to how long you’ve, well, been away. Twitter obsessives (like me, and if you’ve read this far, most likely you as well) would retain something like the current “While you were away…” functions, while those who check in on the service less frequently would get caught up on the last few days of activity with a couple hundred loosely ordered tweets that the algorithm thinks they might like. Either way, scroll to the top, refresh, and you’re back to chronological.
Like everything, “While you were away…” has its detractors (just read the responses to Dorsey’s tweet), with objections falling into two basic camps: It either shows tweets that people have seen before, or tweets that they haven’t seen but don’t actually care about. Again, I’ve experienced the latter, but would counter that Twitter as a whole comprises mostly tweets that people don’t care about, at least in isolation, so it’s not much of a criticism.
The former gripe, though, that Twitter serves up repeat tweets, smells distinctly like the plight of the power user. These are also, coincidentally, the people most fired up whenever a threat arises to the sanctity of the chronological timeline, or the fav star, or 140-character tweets, or any number of tweaks to design and function that have generated righteous anger that quickly gave way to more tweeting.
A Power User Problem
What those obsessives need to understand is that Twitter isn’t exclusively for them. Even if it wanted to be, it couldn’t, at least not if it wanted to survive. Twitter’s smaller than Instagram, and growing less slowly. It’s an order of magnitude smaller than Facebook. It needs to grow, and it hasn’t been in a meaningful enough way to keep its investors satisfied. It could get away with that as a start-up. Now, as a public company, it needs to do whatever it can to bring new eyeballs into the fold.
“It is really important for Twitter to test any ideas that can attract new users to the platform, while balancing the needs of existing users,” says Erna Alfred Liousas, analyst at Forrester Research. “Twitter can market this capability to new users by likening it to familiar experiences like Facebook. Honestly, that approach isn’t new as both Facebook and Twitter re-purpose each other’s capabilities. It is worth testing.”
The objections to the algorithm also presume that Twitter is currently its best self. That’s a stretch. Yes, it’s an essential service during breaking news, especially to those of us in the media, but otherwise it’s a mixed bag of whimsy, news, fights, bile, harassment, and desperation, all presented in a lexicon unique to its most faithful customers. Even to a regular, it can be a tiring slog. To an outsider, it’s inscrutable. Back to Facebook!
An algorithm, ideally, helps sidestep all that chum, zeroing in on what’s interesting, all never more than a pull-to-refresh away from the real-time analysis at which Twitter excels. It’s an additive to the stream, rather than a replacement. Which, again, Dorsey himself has confirmed.
And if you’re worried about twee “tweetstorms” being interrupted by an algorithm, remember that 10,000-character tweets should obviate the need for numbered missives in the first place. Besides which, tweetstorms are already broken up in the chronological timeline by other people tweeting. You’ll access the whole thing like you likely do now: Clicking on the person’s profile, and reading them there, uninterrupted.
Others have expressed concern that an algorithm will undermine the free-form nature of Twitter by inciting people to try to “game the system,” tweeting what they think the algorithm wants to see. Anyone who thinks of Twitter in terms of gaming it, though, already deploys their tweets tactically in an effort to ring up retweets and likes. They’re already disproportionately in your timeline. Best-case, people will tweet less garbage. Worst-case, tweets that people weren’t going to read anyway (because they weren’t online to see them in the moment) go just as unread as they did before.
If you want to level an objection against Twitter rolling out an algorithmic timeline in the near future, let it be that the company has seemingly prioritized this ahead of fixing its very real harassment and abuse issues. The steps the company has taken to address serial trolls and bad actors have not been anywhere near enough. It’s an issue that affects people’s actual lives in a far more material way than the order in which they read their tweets, deserving of more than the back burner, or even the appearance of being a secondary concern.
(It didn’t help that one Twitter developer was “in shock” at how “mean” people on his platform could be. If he thinks this is bad, he should meet GamerGate.)
Not the What But the How
Or, if you do want to feel algorithm anxiety, worry less that it will exist than that it might be clumsily implemented. Twitter’s recent changes to its desktop service introduced a series of unnecessary pop-ups from which it’s difficult to return. Moments isn’t just a mess, it’s a mess that Twitter has tried to force-feed its users. The company recently lostnearly half of its senior leadership team, including its head of engineering and its product head. There’s always a chance that the implementation here could be a hash.
The algorithm itself, though? It will be great for people who rarely use Twitter, or who never have before. Twitter loyalists will get used to it, even enjoy it, and if not, it should be easy enough to either ignore or, as some reports have it, opt-out entirely.
It’s to Twitter’s credit that people care enough about the service to feel personally aggrieved every time it tries to change. If it wants to grow beyond that impassioned core group—and it very much needs to—then it’s going to have to embrace the changes necessary to get there. And so are you.