I think it’s hard to estimate just how greatly the Twitter experience would change if, as reported, the social network shifts to an algorithm-driven Timeline.
While everyone has reacted very strongly to this, particularly in the PR and media worlds, I’m trying to take a more cautious approach for the time being, at least until we know more. After all, this may be something we can turn off if we opt to, in which case it impacts my personal experience not a whit.
Despite the lack of insights as to how this might work (though we can take some guesses based on how Twitter has started showing random Favorited tweets in people’s feeds) there are some areas I’ve been thinking about and which I’ve seen others begin to speculate on:
For brand publishers the impact could be huge, either positively or negatively. On the upside, brand tweets usually see higher engagement levels than those from individuals. So this could be a good thing, surfacing those updates in more people’s feeds and increasing their exposure. But, as we’ve all seen from Facebook in the last year or so, algorithms can be manipulated by the networks that put them in place to their own ends and based on their priorities as a company, not based on the best interests of the audience.
Misinformation would take much longer to disapprove. Think about the last time there was a major news event and how things went down on Twitter. There was the initial blast of sketchy facts followed by a period where details became more and more clear until the real story was clear. But how much longer did those initial inaccurate tweets still appear in your timeline as people just catching up on things shared the news? It’s been my experience that the initial, inaccurate stuff sees much higher engagement than the later corrections. So if items are being ranked on engagement there’s the possibility the garbage will be given priority over the later updates. That’s a real problem that Facebook faces now and it would be a shame to see Twitter go down this same route.
Time-shifting would denigrate the value of the real-time feed. Again, think about what the current Facebook experience is: Your Newsfeed is probably a mix of posts ranging anywhere from the previous hour to five days ago. So instead of getting the real-time experience of what’s happening *now* Twitter would become another platform that’s a random mix of what *has* happened. And that degrades one of the core components of Twitter.
The begging for Favs or RTs would get out of hand quickly, likely leading to some sort of crackdown on the practice, which would mean the value of those points in the algorithm would have to be thrown into question, making said algorithm just that much more mysterious. And the use of media – photos and videos – that usually create higher levels of engagement might have to be curtailed by the algorithm since it could be seen as gaming the system by publishers.
The biggest part of Twitter that would benefit from this is the “lean back experience.” So the people who would get the most out of this are those who follow mostly celebrities and stars of some sort. Celebrity tweets are off-the-charts in terms of engagement and are usually not very timely, making them perfect for an algorithm-based format. So the extreme casual user is the biggest beneficiary of this, which is entirely the point.
In short this is a can of worms that I don’t really think Twitter wants to open. I understand it’s doing this out of a desire to make the experience more friendly for new or light users. Which is why this needs to be either an opt-in or opt-out experience, likely the latter since a new user isn’t going to know they need to opt-out of an impure feed.
Twitter is messy. While it’s a corporately-owned, centrally-managed tool the “how” of Twitter has almost always been in the hands of the users. I use Lists, other people don’t. Someone else is really into hashtag tracking, that’s not my thing. I use Tweetdeck, other people only use Twitter on their mobile devices. Innovations that are core to the experience like hashtags, @mentions and so on have all bubbled up from the user base, not from the company itself until they co-opted them and made them into feature sets. I get that it’s exactly that messiness that keeps some people at arms’ length, sticking with following Britney Spears and Zac Efron and that’s it. But it’s also exactly that messiness that makes it such a wonderful place. Yeah, you miss a lot if you’re not paying attention, but that has to be OK. Corporate decision-making cannot be held captive to some people’s fear of missing out.
As I said on Twitter (of course) the other day, it’s never been a place where I was concerned about finding news I *needed.* I have RSS for that and have actually just gone and added subscriptions to some sites I felt I was missing out on. It’s been a place where I found news that other people thought was interesting enough. If I missed something, well, them’s the breaks. But I like weird, messy Twitter a lot more than I like Facebook, where a group of engineers in California are making judgements about what should or shouldn’t be important to me without my input at all. That’s a level of control I’m not ready to give up, which is why I like RSS feeds so much. And for those who complain that they can’t manage everyone they’re following on Twitter, the solution isn’t this. It’s the Unfollow button, which is the best mechanism at hand right now to help you define your own signal-to-noise comfort level.