Twitter has been getting more like Facebook in all sorts of ways, but it has retained one crucial difference: the reverse-chronological timeline.
Apparently even that isn’t sacred.
Some users, including a colleague of mine at Slate, are now seeing their tweets appear out of chronological order when they open Twitter on their phones or computers. Vice first reported the surprising change on Tuesday morning, and a Twitter spokesman confirmed it to me.
“This is an experiment,” the spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “We’re continuing to explore ways to surface the best content for people using Twitter.”
Users who are seeing the change, however, say it isn’t exactly clear what order the tweets are appearing in instead. The logical guess would be that Twitter is using some kind of algorithm to rank tweets by relevance, as Facebook does with its News Feed. If that’s the case, my colleague said, the algorithm could use some work: There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the tweets that appear at the top of her timeline.
The out-of-order tweets don’t show up every time a user opens the app or website, however. They seem to appear most often when the user logs in for the first time in several hours, much like the “While You Were Away” tweets that regularly appear at the top of users’ timelines when they ‘ve been offline for a while.
The new timeline will also adapt to users’ behavior to some extent. If they spend a lot of time scrolling down their feeds to find older tweets, they’ll start to see the nonchronological ordering more often. On the other hand, if they’re regularly refreshing their feed to see more recent tweets, it will infer that they’re interested more of a real-time experience and the timeline will revert to the old reverse-chronological order.
Although it’s surprising see Twitter test such a bold move away from what might be its defining feature, you can’t say we weren’t warned. New Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said on a recent earnings call, “You will see us continue to question our reverse chronological timeline and all the work it takes to build one by finding and following accounts, through experiences like ‘While You Were Away.’”
Dorsey and Twitter have been looking—rather desperately, some might say—for ways to boost engagement in Twitter and broaden its appeal. Dorsey’s predecessor, Dick Costolo, stepped down this summer amid investor frustration over Twitter’s stagnant user growth.
Twitter officials have often told me in the past that the service is unlikely to fully abandon the chronological timeline, which is the very thing that makes Twitter a top destination for real-time news and conversation. A hybrid timeline that can shift from chronological to nonchronological depending on users’ behavior appears to be the company’s latest bid for the best of both worlds.
Here are some of the early ractions to the change, presented in nonchronological order according to a highly sophisticated algorithm of my own devising:
@twitter Out-of-time-order timeline? NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO (Give up, there's no magic bullet to increase user count)— Jim Sylvester (@JVSylvester) December 8, 2015
Tweets are all out of order on my timeline :P funny seeing people tweeting about Vicky winning and then some saying they hope she wins— Llinos Webb (@cheekymonkey13) December 6, 2015
I swear to god, @twitter, you take my timeline out of order and will mail the contents of my cat's litter box to your headquarters.— AngerMonkey (@AngerMonkey) December 8, 2015
To be fair, Twitter’s existing power users are not the target audience for this change, so it’s no surprise they hate it. And becoming ever more like Facebook does seem likely to make the service more appealing to some users, at least in the short term. But if algorithmic timelines really are Twitter’s future, it also raises the question: Why not just use Facebook instead?