Pando

Don't panic, but Twitter is about to make some major changes

By David Holmes , written on November 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Today is not a good day for Twitter truthers.

For months now, Twitter has hinted that some major changes are coming to its service. Users have been left to ask, will feeds no longer be dictated by each user's personal curation, instead placed under the tyranny of Facebook-style algorithms? Where once there was an indispensable firehose of real-time news updates, will users be greeted instead by a wasteland of Ice Bucket Challenge videos? Will Twitter cease to be Twitter at all?

Today, the company went into more detail than ever before about how it plans to revamp its service in order to attract new users to the platform, which has seen only modest growth since going public, much to the chagrin of Wall Street. The verdict? Yes, Twitter is going to evolve. It must in order to survive. But it will hopefully do so without alienating its longtime power users.

Perhaps the biggest of Twitter's announcements is one it buries deep into a blog post outlining the changes: An algorithmically-devised timeline for new users.

"We’re also working on ideas such as an instant, personalized timeline for new users who don’t want to spend time cultivating one on their own," writes Kevin Weil, Twitter's VP of Product. This is what longtime users have feared most -- that their timeline will no longer be their own -- but if we take Weil at his word, Twitter has smartly chosen to relegate this automated feed to brand new users.

And can you blame the company? It took months after joining Twitter for me to pull much value out of the service. I stuck with it, following and unfollowing accounts to create a kind of controlled chaos that speaks to my pop culture-damaged brain. But not all users are so patient, abandoning the service for the more comfortable environs of Facebook, where your feed is more-or-less a reflection of existing real world connections. With this new timeline, Twitter can provide a showcase for what the service is capable of, with minimal buy-in from new users.

But that doesn't mean longtime Twitter users' feeds are safe from intrusion. Weil also says that the company will "surface relevant Tweets" based on your interests -- the implication being that these Tweets will not come directly from people you follow. For some, even that level of intrusion is a bridge too far. When Twitter CFO Anthony Noto first hinted at algorithmic tinkering with feeds, some apocalyptically called it "the beginning of the end." Observers like the Atlantic's Robinson Meyer were more measured about their concerns, claiming Twitter had begun "to change the central logic of its service."

But is that really such a bad thing? I've raised my own concerns over Twitter's presumptive love affair with algorithms -- namely that if Twitter becomes too much like Facebook, you might not hear about the next major social justice story like the Ferguson shooting. The problem with Facebook, however, may have less to do with the fact that it serves me stories based on an algorithm, and more to do with the fact that, in my estimation, Facebook's algorithm doesn't work very well. It's easy to fool and, to be honest, the collection of stories and videos I see show up in my Facebook feed are almost never up to the caliber of what I see in my Twitter feed.

That may be because Facebook has always been a company that seems more beholden to advertisers than users. The company has proven it's not above manipulating users' emotions -- a powerful tool in the art of getting people to buy stuff -- and whenever it makes a change, users often have be dragged kicking and screaming into the future.

Twitter, on the other hand, has shown time and time again that it's sensitive to user feedback -- even when those users don't make up a majority of its base. For example, when Twitter tweaked its blocking functionality in a way that promoted rather than discouraged bullying, the company quickly reversed course following outcry from a small but vocal set of users. And as the company wrote in its last update about timeline "experiments," it's looking to only roll out these experiments on a wide scale when users react positively to early tests.

It's likely that Twitter will be careful, slow, and smart in implementing these changes. For better or worse, Twitter users won't keep coming back to the service no matter what like Facebook users largely do. That means the company can't afford to wildly alter its service in ways that alienate large swaths of users. And my (possibly hopelessly naive) guess is that Twitter, as a company that's always valued product over trendiness, and users over shareholders, won't mess this up.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]