The straightforward reverse-chronological order is ideal for newshounds who refresh their timelines continually throughout the day. Unfortunately for Twitter, newshounds form only a fraction of the populace. Most people would rather sip their news and commentary from a water bottle than slurp it from a fire hose. And when big news breaks, even the most avid tweeters can get frustrated with the noisy, repetitive, and fragmented flow of the collective conversation.
My raw Twitter feed is now nothing but people talking about filtered Twitter feeds. I’m starting to think it might not be the worst idea.— Neetzan Zimmerman (@neetzan) September 4, 2014
This is the dilemma that has loomed over Twitter ever since the company announced its plans to go public. With that decision, Twitter committed itself to maximizing shareholder value, and while there are a number of possible ways to achieve that, the most obvious is to enlarge its active user base. Facebook’s example suggests that algorithmic sorting could help it do that. For casual users, Twitter would be a lot less intimidating if it automatically displayed a bunch of stuff they were interested in as soon as they logged in. And it would give Twitter’s developers much more freedom to come up with ways to better organize conversations about specific topics.
So, yes, Twitter is bound to get at least a little more like Facebook as it tries to expand. But here’s the thing: Twitter already uses algorithms. Its timeline already is not strictly reverse-chronological, thanks to retweets, sponsored tweets, and those little blue lines that connect conversations among users. And, crucially, introducing algorithms to Twitter’s timeline need not mean that “a Facebook-style filtered feed is coming, whether you like it or not,” in the alarmist phrasing of Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram.
In fact, if you want to get technical about it, Twitter already has a Facebook-style filtered feed. It’s called the “Discover” tab, and it sits third from the left among the four tabs on Twitter.com, behind the default “Home” and the indispensable “Notifications.” On the latest version of the Twitter mobile app, it’s in second place.
At this point the tab seems to be neglected by the majority of Twitter’s users. That may be partly because its algorithms aren’t particularly good yet. (They seem to focus mainly on what others in your circle are sharing or favoriting, without much thought given to your own demonstrated preferences.) But it’s also partly just a function of how people use mobile apps: They tend to spend most of their time on the default home screen.
It’s easy to imagine Twitter refining, rebranding, and eventually moving the Discover tab up in the priority list, perhaps even to the default position for new users. If it does, however, I’d place a strong bet on the company retaining some version of its current reverse-chronological feed for power users, and making it easy to toggle between the two.
Another alternative—more likely, perhaps, given the recent changes and Noto’s comments—is that Twitter could continue to tweak the organization of the Home tab, including adding algorithmically suggested tweets to users’ timelines. But there are all sorts of ways it could achieve this without “Facebook-style filtering.”
For instance, it could add a small number of “in case you missed it” tweets to the top of your timeline each time you log in, while keeping the rest of it largely intact. It could occasionally alert you to tweets from people you don’t follow if it thinks you’ll be particularly interested in them. It could enlarge or otherwise highlight tweets from people you do follow that are getting a lot of favorites or retweets from others in your circles. It could work on better grouping related tweets according to their subject matter. It could even experiment with hiding some tweets from users whose tweets you haven’t engaged with in a long while, yet retain an option to easily display them again if you so desire.
The latter option might be fairly labeled “filtering,” but it would remain a far cry from Facebook-style filtering, in which the majority of your friends’ posts never show up at all. It could be more analogous to the spam filter in your email inbox. And as long as it could easily be toggled to the “off” position, it wouldn’t raise the same kinds of free-speech concerns as Facebook’s news feed, which was criticized in the wake of the Ferguson protests for algorithmically burying the story.
In short, Twitter can continue to tinker with its timeline in subtle, incremental ways without ever losing its underlying reverse-chronological structure. It can do this because the people you follow will always be a different group from the people you friend on Facebook. Really, it’s Facebook that’s hemmed in to a heavily filtered feed by the fact that it began as a social network rather than a place for status updates. Without the baggage of doubling as a 21st-century phonebook and photo album, Twitter is free to borrow from Facebook’s asynchronous, algorithmic playbook without abandoning its focus on real-time news and discussion.
What Twitter’s critics forget is that outsiders aren’t the only ones deeply attached to the service’s core structure. It’s also highly valued by many within the company, including at the highest levels. And so the company agonizes internally over every little change to its original functionality, trying to patch its biggest weaknesses without sacrificing its core strengths. Twitter needs to keep growing, but it also knows that becoming a Facebook clone would be a losing strategy in the long run.
Twitter isn’t going to stop feeding the newshounds—it just wants to throw a few more bones to everyone else.