pat-sajak-twitter

No, Twitter isn’t dead. But if Dick Costolo’s experiments with Facebook-style algorithms that unearth the “best” content come to fruition, it might as well be.

As Twitter and Facebook’s functionalities continue to merge, one thing keeping them apart is that Twitter provides a raw feed. Follow who you like, and you’ll see those users’ updates in reverse-chronological order. Simple. Elegant. But Facebook uses algorithms that handpick the posts it thinks you’ll want to see most. Which makes sense for Facebook — I’m still “friends” with old high school acquaintances or extended family members whose updates, quite frankly, are irrelevant to my life.

On Twitter, however, the stream is far more strictly curated, at least for power users. I don’t feel as though I’ve offended an old acquaintance if I don’t follow them back. “It’s not personal, it’s Twitter.” In this way, users have total control over their feed. That’s where we get the saying, “If you don’t like Twitter, you’re following the wrong people.”

But as everyone from Wall Street to the Valley will tell you, Twitter has struggled to boost its user growth. Is it because it asks too much of users to mold their own feeds? Is that why newcomers find it so daunting? That’s the implication of Twitter’s decision to experiment with algorithmically-curated feeds. It’s already begun to prioritize some tweets over others, hiding @ replies (which I hate — it de-emphasizes the conversational component of Twitter) and putting more popular tweets in bigger fonts.

But haven’t we been through this before? We all know the drill: Twitter changes something, power users freak out and threaten to flee, then those same users promptly go back to obsessive Twittering as if nothing happened.

Here’s what scares me this time around: Allow me to take you all the way back to last week when Facebook’s Product Director posted a sassy critique of why the news sucks in 2014. The heated reaction came not because the critique was particularly unique or smart. It was because, as many journalists and news nerds pointed out, Facebook is partly to blame for the death of big-J Journalism. After all, its News Feed algorithm prioritizes low-quality content over more robust investigative pieces.

The reality is a bit more complex, of course: if anyone’s to blame for the downfall of news, it’s both the journalism industry’s and the tech industry’s over-reliance on ad-supported models. In any case, if Twitter begins to look more like Facebook’s News Feed, you may see the same mind-numbing torrent of listicles, quizzes, and sensational science/health stories that are just barely grounded in fact, regardless of whether you choose to follow transcendent tweeters like Marc Andreessen and Margaret Atwood, or insipid tweeters like Guy Fieri and Jenny McCarthy. It would also cut off the one social platform that still regularly provides measured discussions on domestic and foreign policy and investigative reports that reveal appalling social justice issues — or whatever you like, really, depending on who you follow.

A Twitter that delivers news based on personalized algorithms, designed to force-feed “snackable” content that earns hits and ad impressions but little else, might save the company. The problem is, it could kill journalism in the process.