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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.