Why an Algorithm Change Would Be The Death of Twitter

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In February, Twitter hinted at the idea that it might alter users’ home feeds in a fundamental way, and the Internet reacted. #RIPtwitter was trending as users let Twitter know they wouldn’t welcome the change. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to Twitter to allay people’s concerns, saying that Twitter never intended to make any changes to people’s timelines that week.

Four days later, Twitter did make some changes to the timeline, but they weren’t as significant as first expected. So what exactly happened?

What Did Twitter Plan to Do?

Buzzfeed broke the news that Twitter was going to change how tweets are displayed in your feed. Instead of displaying tweets in reverse chronological order, it was going to introduce an algorithm that displays tweets based on relevance or importance. According to Buzzfeed, the changes were going to be unveiled within one week.

Twitter, including some celebrities, reacted in full force:

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Following the backlash, founder Jack Dorsey sent out a statement in a series of tweets, starting with the following:

What Did Twitter Actually Do?

After the Buzzfeed report, more clarification came to light. First and foremost, The Verge clarified that it was an opt-in feature, and described it as an expanded version of the ‘while you were away,’ featured introduced last year. According to The Guardian, the algorithm would serve up more than the handful of tweets you see with ‘while you were away.’

Two days later Twitter unveiled the new feature, explaining it as follows:

When you open Twitter after being away for a while, the Tweets you’re most likely to care about will appear at the top of your timeline – still recent and in reverse chronological order. The rest of the Tweets will be displayed right underneath, also in reverse chronological order, as always. At any point, just pull-to-refresh to see all new Tweets at the top in the live, up-to-the-second experience you already know and love.

According to Twitter, people who activate the feature are more engaged, and tend to retweet and tweet more than others.

In a separate blog post, Twitter offered a vague explanation as to how the feature works:

We’ve improved the timeline by analyzing how millions of people engage with billions of Tweets — and we’re using this information to determine the best content to surface. We use a person’s past Twitter activity to predict which Tweets they might like to see most. We look at accounts they interact with, Tweets they usually engage with, interests, and what’s going on in their network.

If you want to activate the feature, go to your settings, and select ‘Timeline personalization.’ From there you can toggle on the switch to see what Twitter describes as “the best Tweets first.”

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What we know so far about the feature is that you’ll probably see about a dozen tweets out of order, although there’s no limit to the number of tweets that might be included in that list. The tweets are also not highlighted in any special way, and the more users you follow, the more often you’re likely to see these tweets. In my experience, days after turning on the feature, I never saw any changes to my timeline at all.

The Facebook Effect

When the news first broke, one of the first comparisons made was to Facebook’s news feed algorithm.

Facebook is constantly updating the algorithm used to deliver the posts in your feed, and the latest change sees the social media network relying on more user feedback in the form of surveys. In Facebook’s own words, the posts that appear in your feed are “influenced by your connections and activity on Facebook,” and the aim is to show users self-described high-quality content.

There are some serious issues, however, with the Facebook algorithm. A Wired experiment of liking just about everything in the Facebook news feed revealed a very skewed, one-sided view of the world. While none of us (I assume) go around liking every single post that appears in our news feed it does demonstrate one of the main complaints people have with the algorithm. By serving up more of posts that are similar to what you like – whether socially, politically, or otherwise – the algorithm creates a self-styled bubble where you are viewing things only in your comfort zone. It is the ultimate online confirmation bias experience.

The way Facebook’s algorithm works also forces users to look for workarounds to make sure that they don’t miss out on what really matters to them. Changes to the Facebook algorithm, which used to be known as EdgeRank, also had marketeers thinking that the aim was to push brands to pay for more exposure.

For a while now, one of the key differences between the Twitter and Facebook timelines has been knowing how it all works. We’re not expecting Facebook and Twitter to reveal their secret sauce, but understanding how your actions impact your newsfeed is important. Twitter’s newest feature takes away a little bit of that understanding.

Twitter is About Breaking News

For a lot of Twitter users, Twitter is the first place they go for news. A study carried out by the American Press Institute and Twitter showed that 86 percent of users depend on the service for news while 40 percent use it to keep up with breaking news. The chronological timeline lends itself to this purpose, and fundamental changes to it will probably not be met well among diehard fans.

With services like Pinterest, this kind of feature works well because the very nature of the social network is one of discovery. It’s all about finding more content related to the kinds of content you are following and sharing. With many of Twitter’s features, on the other hand, the service is, for many people, about creating a timely experience.

More Advertising?

While it’s unclear how Twitter’s algorithm works, it would appear that relevant tweets are defined by engagement. And as Twitter continues to look for ways to monetize the service, will this be a new avenue for promoted content to make its way into your feed?

In its second post, Twitter sort of explains what the change means for brands:

“Brands that create quality content have always performed well on Twitter. With this update, whether it comes from an SMB, large brand, consumer, or athlete you follow, the best content shines through…Throughout our tests, we also saw an increase in engagement for brands’ organic Tweets and an increase in engagement for Tweets about live events.”

Promoted tweets, Twitter says, are not affected by the change. It has, however, been welcomed by marketers, as demonstrated by the quotes littering the Twitter blog post explaining the new feature through the lens of an advertiser or brand. Twitter’s announcement also came just one day after it revealed a new form of promoted content called First View, which places a video ad near the top of your news feed.

Is Twitter’s ‘relevant’ content served up every time you log on after a lull going to be filled with advertisers looking for ways to game the system to ensure higher engagement? It’s too soon to tell.

What do you think of Twitter’s new feature? Have you turned it on? Are you going to keep using it? Let us know in the comments.

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