pat-sajak-twitter

A couple weeks ago, a certain class of Twitter power users expressed varying degrees of outrage and concern when the company started inserting tweets of people they didn’t follow into their feeds. What angered them most was that Twitter had shown users tweets on the basis that they had been favorited by someone the user follows. This launched dual and deadly-serious philosophical arguments about the nature of the favorite — in a TIME article, Jessica Roy counted no less than sixteen different types of “fave” — and the nature of Twitter itself. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer went so far to say that, by moving ever so slightly away from offering a “raw feed” of the people you follow, Twitter had started to “change the central logic of its service.”

Now Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has stepped in to explain why the service is showing you other people’s favorites, and the answer is much more mundane than most people expected.

In a tweet responding to a concerned Twitterite, Costolo said, “you get favorites when you pull-to-refresh 2x and we have no new tweets from follows both times.”

To me and I’m sure many others, that comes as a bit of a relief. It turns out these “creeping favorites” are merely a mechanism to suggest tweets after a user’s natural feed has run dry, as opposed to an attempt to hijack it. And while I didn’t think Favegate was the Extinction Level Event some observers did, I worried it was another incremental step toward a Twitter feed that was no longer controlled by users.

Unlike Facebook, which utilizes a sophisticated algorithm to serve up content from your friends and follows that the company thinks you’ll like most, Twitter is a raw stream of data that users can carefully curate according to their tastes. That’s why for news junkies, Twitter was a much better way to follow the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting than Facebook, where my feed was littered with Ice Bucket Challenges and ridiculous quizzes. I theorized that if Twitter implements a Facebook-style algorithm, its users may not learn about the next Ferguson.

Twitter is playing its cards pretty close to the vest regarding whether it will break the integrity of its raw feed by algorithmically selecting what content users will see. But if we’re playing the speculation game, then Costolo’s rather trivial explanation for why the company inserts random faves into people’s feeds is a good sign. It doesn’t appear that Twitter is taking aggressive steps to change the logic of its service — not yet, anyway.

There are undeniable benefits to Twitter if it follows Facebook’s lead when it comes to algorithmic curation. It eases the notoriously steep learning curve that newcomers experience when they first log into Twitter. After all, user acquisition and retention has a been a big thorn in Wall Street’s side since Twitter went public. Uncertain of who to follow, these new users could lean on a News Feed-style algorithm that suggests the most clickable content — and the most clickable advertisements. Twitter’s got to get paid somehow.

In talking to startups that work to help advertisers monetize on Twitter, it sounds like the most likely way for the service to embrace algorithmic curation is by implementing two feeds — one that’s completely raw and one that, like Facebook’s, is tailored to a user’s actions like favorites and clicks.

That wouldn’t spell disaster for users like me who are addicted to the chaotic raw madness of Twitter as it stands today. And judging by Costolo’s non-alarming response to the favorite controversy, he’s in no hurry to alienate the crazies.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]