On Twitter, the big outrage over the past few days has been the news that the corporate suits are planning to change the way your Twitter feed works. Instead of simply listing every tweet from your followers in real time, they’ll be rolling out an algorithm that reorders tweets “based on what Twitter’s algorithm thinks people most want to see.” This is something Facebook has been doing for years.
Power users are apoplectic, despite the fact that it’s not clear what’s really going on. A developer at Twitter hit back with this: “Seriously people. We aren’t idiots. Quit speculating about how we’re going to ‘ruin Twitter.'” Nor is it clear when this is really going to roll out. And the rumors suggest that it will be an opt-in feature anyway. Chronological timelines will still be around for everyone who wants them.
In any case, I’d suggest everyone give this a chance. Computer users, ironically, are notoriously change averse, which might be blinding a lot of us to the fact that chronological timelines aren’t exactly the greatest invention since the yellow first down line. Maybe we really do need something better. More generally, here are a few arguments in favor of waiting to see how this all plays out:
- I’m a semi-power user. I don’t write a lot on Twitter,1 but I read it a lot. Still, I have a job and a life, and I don’t check it obsessively. And even though I follow a mere 200 people, all it takes is 15 minutes to make it nearly impossible to catch up with what’s going on. Being on the West Coast makes this an especial problem in the morning. A smart robot that helped solve this problem could be pretty handy, even for those of us who are experts and generally prefer a real-time feed.
- One of my most common frustrations is coming back to the computer after a break and seeing lots of cryptic references to some new outrage or other. What I’d really like is a “WTF is this all about?” button. An algorithmic feed could be a useful version of this.
- As plenty of people have noted, Twitter is a sexist, racist, misogynistic cesspool. There are things Twitter could do about this, but I suspect they’re limited as long as we rely on an unfiltered chronological timeline. Once an algorithm is introduced, it might well be possible to personalize your timeline in ways that clean up Twitter immensely. (Or that allow Twitter to clean it up centrally—though this obviously needs to be done with a lot of care.)
- One of the most persuasive complaints about the algorithm is that it’s likely to favor the interests of advertisers more than users. Maybe so. Unfortunately, Twitter famously doesn’t seem able to find a profitable business model. But if we like Twitter, the first order of business is for it to stay in existence—and that means it needs to make money. This is almost certain to be annoying no matter how Twitter manages to do it. A good algorithm might actually be the least annoying way of accomplishing this.
- Needless to say, all of this depends on how good the algorithm is. It better be pretty good, and it better improve over time.
So….stay cool, everyone. Maybe this will be an epic, New Coke style disaster that will end up as a case study in business texts for years. It wouldn’t be the first time. Then again, maybe the algorithm will be subtle, useful, and optional. I’ll be curious to try it out, myself.
1Arguments on Twitter are possibly the stupidest waste of time ever invented. Everything that’s bad about arguments in the first place is magnified tenfold by the 140-character limit. It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than a psychopath has ever emerged from a Twitter war thinking “That was great! I really learned something today.”