Twitter's algorithmic timeline: "Show me the best tweets first."

#RIPTwitter? Hardly. Here’s What’s Really Changing.

#RIPTwitter? Hardly. Here’s What’s Really Changing.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 10 2016 9:00 AM

#RIPTwitter? Hardly. Here’s What’s Really Changing.

Jack Dorsey
Jack Dorsey's next move: a new option called "show me the best tweets first."

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Twitter just made a significant change that it hopes will make the service more useful and accessible—and help to reverse the company’s slumping fortunes.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

Starting Wednesday, you’ll have the option to select a setting titled, “Show me the best tweets first.” When you do, the tweets that appear at the top of your timeline when you log in will no longer be the most recent ones. Instead, your timeline will begin with a series of tweets selected by an algorithm.

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In a few weeks, this will change from an “opt-in” option to the default for all Twitter users, although you’ll still be able to turn it off in your settings.*

The algorithm, Twitter representatives told me, is designed to surface the “most important” tweets you may have missed in your timeline since you last logged in. Those tweets—a dozen, perhaps, though the number will vary based on how long you’ve been away—will all be from people you follow, and they’ll be tailored to your interests based on your own activity on the site. They’ll be presented in reverse-chronological order, but they could include tweets from hours or even days ago.

Below the auto-picked tweets will be the rest of your timeline, starting with the most recent tweets, as usual. And when you refresh the page, the latest tweets from people you follow will once again start appearing at the top of the timeline, pushing the algorithmically selected “important” tweets down the page.

Confused yet? You might be, since the “best” tweets won’t be specially marked or separated from the rest of the timeline, as they are in Twitter’s existing “While You Were Away” feature. You’d have to look closely at the time stamps to see just where they end and your full timeline begins.

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“We wanted to keep the reading experience as natural as possible for people in their timelines,” Michelle Haq, Twitter’s product manager for the timeline, told me. “We really think this is going to make life easier for our users.”

The goal, Haq said, is to address a problem that has dogged Twitter for years. Here’s how the company explained it in a blog post Wednesday morning:

You follow hundreds of people on Twitter — maybe thousands — and when you open Twitter, you may feel like you’ve missed their most important Tweets [sic]. We hear this from people every day. Starting today, you can choose a new timeline feature that helps you catch up on the most important Tweets from the people you follow. 

If you squint hard, you could view this as a fundamental change in how Twitter works. The timeline has always been ordered predominantly by recency. Now it can be ordered by a combination of recency and relevance, to use the social-media industry’s buzzwords—Facebook’s buzzwords, really. It may be CEO Jack Dorsey’s most substantive move since he returned last summer to run the company he co-founded, and it’s a fairly naked bid to make the service a little more like Facebook. (Why would Twitter want to be more like Facebook? Glad you asked.)

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Yet this is hardly the “end of Twitter” that doomsayers are so fond of predicting. (A BuzzFeed article on Friday that leaked word of coming changes to the timeline spawned an #RIPtwitter hashtag from the site’s loyalists and critics, who fear it is morphing into a sort of Facebook-lite.)

For one thing, Twitter will make it easy to opt out.* Even if you leave the feature on, Twitter’s personalization algorithm will have far less influence over what you see than Facebook’s does. It will not attempt to rank the “most important” tweets by actual importance—it will just present them in reverse chronological order. And because tweets are so short and the number of “best” tweets limited, you’ll quickly reach the main portion of your timeline as you scroll down. That portion will remain unsullied by algorithmic curation.

Again, all of this could change down the road. But I can’t imagine the ability to view your timeline in reverse-chronological order is going away anytime soon, if ever. Twitter knows as well as anyone that the ability to follow live events in real time is its service’s greatest strength. “At the end of the day, this doesn’t change the essence of Twitter,” Haq said. “Twitter is and will remain best place to find out what’s happening in your world right now.”

Haq said she wasn’t ready to share details of how the algorithm works, as Facebook did with me recently. But she did identify three “signals” that it looks for in choosing the tweets to put at the top of your feed:

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  • The accounts and tweets you’ve interacted with in the past.
  • Topics you’re interested in.
  • The activity of people who are similar to you.

If it’s anything like “While You Were Away”—and it probably will be, since it was built by the same team at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters—many of the tweets will come from the handful of people whose tweets you’ve interacted with the most in the past. The algorithm is unlikely to be anywhere near as sophisticated as Facebook’s.

The option is available starting Wednesday on Twitter for the iPhone, Android phones, and Twitter.com. You can find it in the timeline section of your settings page.

No doubt this change will draw a fresh round of howls from the same people who howl every time Twitter changes anything. But it’s actually a quite measured step in a direction that has seemed inevitable for some time now—a sort of “news briefing” section tacked on top of the timeline, rather than a reordering or reimagining of the timeline itself.

If anything, it might prove too cautious a move to persuade investors that the service is back on a path to growth and mainstream adoption.

The good news for Twitter is that the company’s internal testing suggests showing users their top tweets first might have a tangible impact on engagement. Haq said the company tried out several versions of this change on small fractions of its users and chose this one after poring over the data. “Across the board, it caused people to create more and interact more,” she said. That’s not surprising: It’s a lesson Facebook learned years ago.

I’ve cautioned in the past that Twitter could lose its way by trying too hard to replicate Facebook’s path to ubiquity. It’s trying, all right—but not too hard, if this relatively modest new feature is an indication. Maybe just hard enough.

*Correction, Feb. 10, 2016: This article originally misstated that the "best tweets" feature would be opt-in. In fact, it will begin as opt-in but will become the default for all users in the coming weeks.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.