Pando

Why you shouldn't freak out about Twitter's new timeline experiments

By David Holmes , written on October 17, 2014

From The News Desk

For the most-experienced power users of Twitter, the timeline is sacred. We constantly prune and pluck at the accounts we follow, shaping our feed to produce the funniest and smartest timeline of curated chaos we can handle.

But most users don't do this, and Twitter knows it.

That's why it's been experimenting with the home timeline, adding popular or relevant tweets from accounts you don't follow or activity from accounts you do. Many have already observed these changes on their own feeds -- and the response from certain members of the Twitterati lie somewhere between "Ebola" and "ISIS" on the panic spectrum.

"When will Twitter no longer be Twitter?" the Atlantic's Robinson Meyer asked. Later, when Twitter's CFO Anthony Noto used the dreaded A-word (algorithm) to describe the future of the timeline, NYU professor Jay Rosen tweeted, "this could be the beginning of the end." [Disclosure: Rosen was a professor of mine in journalism school]. The thought leader crowd was so united in its anxiety that when Silicon Valley's resident calmer-downer (and -- disclosure -- Pando investor) Marc Andreessen tweeted that he welcomes algorithmic filtering on Twitter, he prefaced it with "Something I believe that few others believe..."

The thing is -- and this is often true of "few others believe me" statements -- there are many people who believe filtering can improve the Twitter experience. Twitter product guy Trevor O'Brien writes, "Testing indicated that most people enjoy seeing Tweets from accounts they may not follow, based on signals such as activity from accounts you do follow, the popularity of the Tweets, and how people in your network interact with them."

That said, I understand the fears. Nobody wants to see Twitter turn into Facebook. I sure don't. On Facebook, an algorithm selects the stories you see based on your own activity and preferences -- or so the company claims. Facebook can be a powerful engine for psychological manipulation and you have to wonder how much its algorithmic tinkering is designed to please advertisers as opposed to users. For example, in August my feed was dominated by Ice Bucket Challenge videos when all I really wanted to read about was the Michael Brown shooting. Over at Twitter, where the timeline is a thing of my own making, there was no shortage of reporting and analysis on Ferguson in my feed.

But not even Twitter wants Twitter to "become Facebook." That's what Facebook is already for, and I think we're long past the "fad" stage of Facebook's success. Furthermore, Facebook is an ad network. So is Twitter, of course -- how else can these free services keep the lights on? But Twitter's biggest strength may lie in its ability to leverage media partnerships around sports or other live televised events. It doesn't want you to just talk about TV on Twitter -- it wants you to watch it, through instant replays or other clips. And if Twitter's algorithms, sensing that I follow a ton of basketball writers, decides to send me a short replay clip of a monstrous dunk that NBA sponsor Taco Bell tweeted out, what do I care? It probably won't make me more likely to buy a taco (who am I kidding, of course it will) but it's far more engaging than some lame photoshop of a taco playing basketball in a Promoted Tweet -- which Twitter already inserts into timelines against my will.

Don't get me wrong -- Twitter could really mess this up if it's not careful. And I truly hope that Twitter still offers the ability to scroll through a raw feed, if not on its own site then at least through an API and a third-party. Furthermore, there's an interesting argument laid out here by UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci that these experiments violate how we send and process social signals (it's too complicated to summarize in a way that does the argument justice, so I suggest reading the whole post). And finally, in a perfect world? I would prefer that Twitter stay exactly the way it is now.

But Twitter is a public company, with shareholders who expect to see some profits at some point. Complaining about that isn't going to change reality. And besides, what other business model do you suggest beyond advertising to support an enormous social and media network?

Some of it comes down to faith, too. Unlike many tech giants, Twitter is very sensitive to the concerns of its users, even if they don't always make up the majority. We saw this when the company briefly altered the block functionality before quickly backpedaling in response to outcry from users, particularly those who have dealt with bullying and abuse from trolls.

As I've written before, Twitter has to evolve in order to survive. And so I'd rather see it do so slowly and smartly, while taking into consideration the demands of all users. Otherwise it could stagnate and, in a moment of profit-seeking existential panic following a string of down-revenue quarters, do something really dumb that ruins the service forever.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]