Time to change Twitter, or #RIPTwitter?

One the main topics on Twitter the last day or so has been, well, Twitter itself. When the rumour came out that Twitter was – apparently within the next week or so – going to move to using an ‘algorithmic’ rather than chronological ‘timeline’, the reaction was pretty strong and direct. The hashtag #RIPTwitter trended worldwide.

Not for the first time, it looked as though Twitter had demonstrated that, to put it bluntly, it didn’t understand its own product, or its own customers. This has happened a number of times over the last year or two – particularly since the IPO – most recently with the change from ‘favourites’ to ‘likes’. This time, however, there is a difference. Twitter aren’t just changing labels – the favourites to likes change was essentially symbolic, hearts replacing stars, and though the symbolism was particularly poor, as it suggested a move to be more like Facebook, something anathema to many Twitter users, symbolism was all it was. This time the suggested move was much more than symbolic, it was messing with the very essence of Twitter.

What’s ‘good’ about Twitter for many people is its simplicity and directness – and the degree to which the users themselves control their experience of it. The timeline is part of that. You choose who you follow, and you get their tweets as they tweet them. Things aren’t chosen for you – either by humans or by algorithms – so Tweeters feel they have control. Moreover, there are a wide range of current uses for Twitter that depend directly on that chronological approach – these are just a few:

  1. The ‘live tweeting’ of current events as they happen – whether this be of conferences  or press events, or political or ‘news’ events. What happened in Ferguson could be followed better on Twitter than through any form of mainstream media – and it was the immediacy and timely nature of Twitter that made this so. A curated timeline, however good the algorithm, could not hope to capture that.
  2. Streams of tweets by an individual on the same subject are often in a key order – whether they’re marked as such (using the 1/n, 2/n etc approach) or not. If you read them out of order, the meaning changes often radically, particularly as Twitter is ideal for the use of humour, irony, sarcasm and similar forms of pithy wit. Any regular user of Twitter will have experienced their own tweets being taken out of context, or having to redirect people to previous tweets. That’s hard enough with a chronological timeline – with an algorithmically curated timeline it would be far worse, again, however good the algorithm.
  3. Conversations happen on twitter that also depend very much on the order of the tweets – and again, it’s hard enough to follow the often complex threads of long conversations without the interference of algorithmic curation. Some key parts of the conversation can be out of order, others omitted entirely because the algorithm doesn’t understand their significance in context. A good algorithm could reduce the level of this kind of problem – but it would have to be incredibly good and having no algorithm at all would still be better!
  4. Finding the originator of an idea depends a great deal on time – and algorithmic curation could exacerbate the already thorny problem of attribution. More ‘popular’ people are already credited with ideas of ‘lesser’ people – this would just make this even worse.

The idea of using algorithms is very attractive, but it’s underpinned by an illusion that algorithms are somehow ‘neutral’ or ‘fair’. This is what brings about the idea that Google is a neutral indexer of the internet and a guardian of free speech, but it really is an illusion. Algorithms are human creations and embed ideas and biases that those who create them may well not even be aware of. They can make existing power imbalances worse, as the assumptions that underpin those imbalances are built into the very thought processes that create the algorithms. Yes, people can compensate, but even that act of compensation can bring about further biases. Where the essence of the idea behind an algorithm is to make Twitter more money, then that bias itself will interfere with the process, consciously, subconsciously or otherwise.

I sympathise very much with Twitter here. They’re under huge pressure to make more money – and though I would like that pressure not to exist, it does. Twitter is a corporation, not a public utility. It has to find ways to make profits – and that does mean contemplating change. We, as Twitter users – in my case someone who really loves Twitter – need to be very careful not to resist change from a sense of nostalgia or a determination to hang on to what we are comfortable with – but in this case it really does matter.

Part of this may be resolved if, as has been hinted, the algorithmic timelines are ‘opt-in’ and the default timelines remain, well, time-lines. Twitter could even bite the bullet and realise that their other recent ‘change’, the introduction of ‘Moments’, was a mistake, and simply replace ‘Moments’ with an algorithmically curated timeline that people could choose to use, whilst keeping the default as the chronological timeline. I, however, am not holding my breath on that one. Though Twitter have been saying they’ll consider anything, they don’t seem to include admitting recent ideas have been mistaken among those things they consider.

There are other options they could contemplate – other ways to make money. They could, for example, create a paid for ‘Twitter Classic’ app that, for a small fee, gives you a ‘clean’ Twitter with a pure, chronological timeline, no promoted Tweets, no ‘moments’ and so on. Whilst the ‘paid for’ model for the net itself has largely been rejected, the idea that we can pay for apps on our phones and computers has been accepted. Indeed, paying for ‘ad-free’ versions of various services is both common and seemingly successful. If Twitter wants to go that way, I for one would pay for the app. I may be rare, however.  People can rarely be convinced to pay for something they used to get for nothing.  That’s Twitter’s challenge. I hope they find a way to meet it without destroying their own essence. If they go the way of algorithmic curation as default, it really could be #RIPTwitter.

6 thoughts on “Time to change Twitter, or #RIPTwitter?

  1. I saw some articles saying this may be optional, but from a design point of view, I don’t see how they can actually make it optional. For on/off to work, you’d also have to ask every one you follow and everyone they follow to also turn it off, for the downstream bias to be fully removed. That is so impractical it is pretty much just an illusory cosmetic choice.

  2. Thank you Paul – a thoughtful piece (as always).

    I am also one of those who like the current reverse chronology timeline. In fact I preferred the purer original. Even the introduction of ‘conversation’ links sullied that experience. Now the same tweets get repeated every time someone responds.(Twitter apparently thought its users were too stupid to work out how to expand tweets to see the related conversation.)

    Your idea for transforming ‘moments’ into the curated (algorithm driven) stream makes sense (not least because I never use moments so won’t notice the change). This section already works a bit like facebook (which, in the jargon, tries to ‘surface’ relevant content). Sadly, twitter seems intent on listening to everyone except their experienced users.

    But don’t worry. Once Jack and his funders have killed the golden goose, someone will come along and hatch another clean communications channel. Which will work for a few years until shortly after its IPO.


    PS: Labels they may be but hearts show stronger approval than stars – now it feels like overkill when you merely use them to show warm approval. That said, they were originally intended as a way of bookmarking tweets you liked for future reference – not a way of endorsing comments.

  3. With the chronological timeline that Twitter has currently, if you follow a lot of people (about 1,000+), then you will not see everyone’s new tweets, even if particular profiles are more popular and tweet more regularly than other. I feel that algorithmic timelines will makes this worse, because of the bias of the algorithms themselves.

  4. Is there some kind of unwritten rule that says new is always better than old? Why is it assumed that we “need” to submit to unnecessary change? It used to be in the name of progress that our country was bulldozed, but I thought that now everyone understands that it was largely for pure profit? Yes, I know that companies need profits, but do we need companies that put profits before the customers that made them profitable?

    There is a malignant malady that seems to infect in all large organisations. As they grow they care less and less about their customers and tend more and more towards the philosophy that they are doing us all a favour. This is the problem with the health service, this is the problem with government, the banks have had this idea for centuries. Tesco thought that all their customers were stupid. Same problem with Google who are censoring us and I found that Firefox were doing the same thing with my website by saying it was unsafe for no good reason. The thing to do (and I don’t really expect anyone to do it) is to let them know, just like they did to the bankers and politicians in Iceland, that we really do not need them that badly. I don’t need Google or Firefox and I’ve told them so.

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