Is Twitter's "favorite" controversy its first step on the road to ruin?
On first glance, Twitter and Facebook would seem to have a lot in common. Users follow humans, brands, and media organizations in order to see text, links, photos, and videos posted by these accounts in their feeds. And while most connections on Facebook are friend connections, meaning both parties must agree to the relationship to see each other's posts, Facebook now allows users to "follow" accounts without friending them, making it more like Twitter than ever.
But the core fundamentals behind how Facebook and Twitter serve up content to users couldn't be more different. With the exception of a few errant ads, Twitter provides a raw feed of every tweet sent by the people you follow (some "@ replies" are hidden but that's generally done in the service of users who don't want to be inundated with Twitter canoes. Furthermore, Twitter's rules around this are clear, so if you want your followers to be able to see an @ reply, all you need to do is add a character before the initial @ sign in your tweet).
This control Twitter gives users allows them to carefully customize their feed in order to get exactly what they want out of the service. Facebook, on the other hand, employs an algorithm that tries to guess what content its users want to see most based on activity like "likes" and comments, while suppressing stories it doesn't think you'll enjoy. To use Mark Zuckerberg's journalism analogy, Facebook is a newspaper put together by robots, Twitter is a newspaper put together by you.
Over the past couple weeks, Twitter has been allowing tweets from accounts you don't follow to appear in your feed. These rogue tweets may come from accounts followed by users you follow or, more upsettingly to a number of observers, they may be tweets favorited by users you follow. The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer went so far to say that Twitter had begun "to change the central logic of its service," not necessarily because it started adding people you don't follow into your feed (again it's done that for a while with "promoted tweets") but because it damages the integrity of the "fave."
"By transforming what a fave does, this feature fundamentally changes what a fave is. Users will have to adjust, and that process will exact communal costs."
Right now you might be thinking, "Why is this guy freaking out about a relatively trivial functionality like the favorite?"
First, a little context -- To many, the favorite is a far richer and more complex form of expression than, say, a "like" on Facebook. If you still aren't convinced, make your way over to Jessica Roy's indispensable "A Simple Guide to Twitter Favs" which, apologies to Vox and FiveThirtyEight, is one of the best examples I've seen of the trend-du-jour known as explanatory journalism.
But the argument that Twitter has just now ruined favorites doesn't really hold water to me either. Make no mistake, we lost the integrity of the fave long before now -- it happened when Twitter began listing every tweet a user's favorited on their profile. For me, that really did have a "communal cost" -- usually when I favorite a tweet, it's to say, "This is really funny and fucked up, and I really appreciate you tweeting this but I probably don't want to be too closely associated with it." Today the whole world can see all the sick shit I favorite. But again that's nothing new.
There's also a strong argument that, in and of itself, showing users favorites of people they don't follow is a good thing. Fusion's Margarita Noriega, who is probably better at Twitter than you are at anything, writes, "If you are forced to see new tweets that are purely in the control of whom you follow, you will learn more about the behavior of people you follow, and you will gain another entry point to communities that weren’t on your radar before."
So the whole thing is much atweet about nothing, huh?
Not quite. The insertion of more and more tweets from people you don't follow, whether they're ads or tweets your friends' favorited, marks a continued trend toward morphing Twitter from that "newspaper put together by you" to something more akin to Facebook's "newspaper put together by robots." And as I wrote last week in the ongoing wake of the Michael Brown killing, Facebook's robots really don't care if you are informed about what's going on in Ferguson, MO right now:
As you probably know by now, Facebook uses an algorithm that aims to predict what type of content users will most want to click on, so it can surface those stories more frequently in a user’s News Feed.As we’ve reported in the past, this algorithm favors listicles, quizzes, and other clickbait, as well as pat inspirational stories with little substance behind them. Even Facebook admits that it wants to make us feel happy (“delighted,” even). After all, that was its defense for conducting emotional experiments on its users.
Of course, don’t believe for a second that Facebook does this out of the goodness of its heart. Happy people, or at least people who think happiness is just a click away, are more likely to buy whatever shit Facebook’s advertisers are selling. In any case, a report from Ferguson hardly passes the happy test — If you’ve been following any of the reports out of Ferguson lately, you’ll know there’s little to be delighted about in greater St. Louis right now. Twitter, however, gives users so much control that, as long as they put the time in to follow the right accounts, they won't miss the kind of stories they know the people they follow are likely to share. But following the right accounts takes a big initial buy-in from users, not to mention a measure of upkeep over time -- which many new users find daunting. And as a public company with Wall Street investors to impress, Twitter needs to find some way to flatten out its learning curve to get more users. And indeed, last May sources told the New York Times that Twitter was considering a News Feed style algorithm, which would basically ruin Twitter forever.
We shouldn't panic yet. The biggest distinction between Facebook's feed and Twitter's feed is still intact: While Twitter may be starting to add posts to your feed from people you don't follow, it doesn't mysteriously suppress or hide posts from people you do follow, like Facebook does. But with advertisers to please, profits to chase, and new users to attract, Twitter feels like it's at an inflection point. And if we aren't careful, these tiny incremental changes to our feed (a "favorite" there, an "advertisement" here) could turn Twitter into the same wasteland of listicles, quizzes, and "branded experiences" that Facebook has become for many of us.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas]