Reports of Twitter shifting to an algorithmic timeline raise concerns about user control and experience

Twitter is signaling that it’s going to change how it shows the timeline to users, or at least experiment with it. Here’s what the company CFO actually said yesterday, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,” Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. “Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.”

Mathew Ingram read the WSJ report and interpreted it to mean that a “Facebook-style feed is coming, whether you like it or not.” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo objected to that headline and characterization:

After Ingram’s post, both Mashable’s Karissa Bell suggested and Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel have suggested that users shouldn’t freak out about a filtered feed because Twitter isn’t turning into Facebook — yet. Like Ingram, Warzel notes that this change to product might be an improvement for normal or new users:

For average Twitter users, an algorithmic feed might be just the incentive to head to Twitter for breaking news like so many journalists and news fiends. Given the newsgathering makeup of the social network, the content is already there. And this would certainly help expose a great number of tweets to a larger audience.
Of course this is a terrifying prospect for Twitter’s most obsessive crowd. The ones who live on Twitter. And for good reason! For plenty of journalists Twitter is a key tool in their day to day work and, for some, an integral platform in advancing their careers. But there’s nothing in Noto’s comments to suggest that this incarnation of Twitter — the core component of the social network that’s led to the platform’s meteoric rise, IPO, and global success — can’t co-exist with an algorithmically-driven timeline.

At the risk of giving Twitter too much credit, it seems preposterous that the company’s executives and product team would toss out the very core of the site and almost maliciously alienate its most ardent supporters and users. Sure, there’s wide concerns that Twitter’s product team doesn’t have the same relationship to the product as most intense newsgatherers, but it seems odd that the company, which employs a Head of News executive and frequently touts the importance of the raw feed during live events, would be clueless as to the platform’s standing in the news community.

Still, even the possibility of the change has riled a lot of people up, particularly media, and for good reason: the defaults do matter, particularly when the vast majority of users access the service using Twitter.com, m.twitter.com or the official mobile applications. There’s good reason to be concerned, as Ingram highlighted:

The most recent example of how stark the differences can be between a filtered feed and an unfiltered one was the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and how that showed up so dramatically on Twitter but was barely present for most users of Facebook. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted, that kind of filtering has social consequences — and journalism professor Emily Bell pointed out that doing this makes Facebook and Twitter into information gatekeepers in much the same way newspapers used to be.

Tufecki holds that Twitter should not algorithmically curate users’ timelines, even if algorithms will always serve tweets:

It’s simple: Twitter’s uncurated feed certainly has some downsides, and I can see some algorithmic improvements that would make it easier for early users to adopt the service, but they’d potentially be chopping off the very—sometimes magical—ability of mature Twitter to surface from the network. And the key to this power isn’t the reverse chronology but rather the fact that the network allows humans to exercise free judgment on the worth of content, without strong algorithmic biases. That cumulative, networked freedom is what extends the range of what Twitter can value and surface, and provides some of the best experiences of Twitter.

I’m inclined to take these concerns seriously but I’ll keep my powder dry just yet, with respect to upset. My take (yeah, I know) is that if Twitter experiments with giving users of its website an algorithmically curated stream to improve the relevance of what they see, OK… new users may appreciate that product. Or not. Either way, I hope that the company preserves API access for 3rd party clients, like Tweetbot. I hope Twitter preserves user’s ability to use Tweetdeck to view the timeline of people you follow and lists in reverse chronological order. I want to be able to decide, just as I do on the Facebook newsfeed with “Most Recent” vs “Top News,” and just as I want to know that I see every tweet from the people I’ve chosen to follow or put on the list.

If any of that access or control actually changes, then you’ll see me getting genuinely upset about Twitter breaking Twitter, just as I was when they crippled the free flow of information over the service in the name of spam and phishing prevention. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal also reported that Twitter is going to put more emphasis on messaging after it neglecting it for years, perhaps enabling “group chats” after adding pictures earlier this year. If so, I hope the company adds more domains to the small white list it currently allows. Tufecki, for her part, has an even longer wish list for improvements:

…there are many, many things Twitter could do to address all of that without breaking its networked, human-prioritizing logic. Much much better tutorials seems like such an obvious step (I have hardly seen good ones). Better suggestions for users to follow, perhaps a dozen at a time, and better ways of trying following groups of people. Right now, it’s all individual and arduous, and that should remain the core option, but the entry ramp could be much faster. Better filtering, too, especially of mentions would be very welcome. I’m craving a timed mute, for example—let me mute out someone who I don’t happen to want to listen that day or that week, without having to mute them permanently. Group chat for DM? Woohoo. DM is among Twitter’s most powerful features because it only allows contact from people one chooses to follow which is a better filter than email, but not as strict a one as Facebook which operates differently. Also, brevity makes DM more powerful. And lists! Twitter can do so much more to make lists more useful to its users to let users decide how to deal with signal/noise and interest ratios.

There is so much Twitter can do try to improve the user experience, for both the experienced and the beginner. But I hope that it does not algorithmically curate the feed, not because I love the chronology per se, but because I value people’s judgement. Yes, Twitter can make it easier to access that judgment in more varied ways but stepping between people I choose to follow and me is not the answer.

Asked for comment on these reports, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser pointed me to Costolo’s reply to an analyst during Twitter’s earning call this July:

Vis-à-vis the additional products we could see I mentioned that I really again the kinds of experiences we created around topics and live events during the World Cup. We will run a number of experiments to that broader audience those unique visitors I talked about and I wouldn’t want to be specific about the sequence with which roll those out or when you would see those. On your second question, algorithmic timelines for example versus manually curated follow lists I think it’s fair to say that we are not ruling out any kinds of changes that we might deliver in the product in service to bridging that gap between signing up for Twitter and receiving immediate value and you will see a number of kinds of experiments that we produce there.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Reports of Twitter shifting to an algorithmic timeline raise concerns about user control and experience

  1. Nice Article. Very detailed and intuitive. Keep em’ coming!

  2. Reblogged this on Simplr and commented:
    There is literally no need to say anything else, as the writer already covered everything. Check out this article.

  3. Pingback: Twitter: invoeren van een tijdlijn? | DGTalent

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