Commentary

Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad Algorithm? Twitter Users!

Oh, no! The truth about Twitter’s future plans seems to be slowly leaking out, and all signs – or several really important ones, anyway – are pointing toward a Twitter feed filtered, by … an, an … algorithm! Shiver the thought!

While this rumor has been circulating for some time, it’s gathered steam – just like a LOLcat video – in recent weeks, what with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo saying he wouldn’t rule one out, and now CFO Anthony Noto hinting strongly that a Facebook-like newsfeed, which presumably takes into account things like the popularity of a post, was on its way.

Predictably – sigh – the Twitterati have gotten all tied up in their underwear about the mere suggestion that the platform might be more relevant if its content flow was more organized. Currently, according to a poll at the bottom of this story on Gigaom, 88% of those who responded want Twitter to stay just as it is; in other words, as a jumble of largely undifferentiated content. Unless – for example – Joan Rivers dies and everyone is tweeting about it, or you’re following a hashtag at a conference. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explained, (in a tweet – natch), “Twitter doesn’t seem to understand why people like Twitter.”

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But hold on a sec. If you’ve noticed that the Social Media Insider has once again become snide, you are correct! Here’s why: with Twitter’s user growth and engagement slowing, you have to question whether it’s really true, as so many Twitter devotees say, that people really like Twitter because of its reverse-chronological-order hang-up.

I’d argue that it’s just the thing that is turning many users away, and part of what has turned the platform into a sometimes nauseating self-branding fest, full of tweets whose only purpose is to demonstrate how awesome the tweeter is. Even when the feed isn’t clogged with an endless stream of self-promoters, it can be desperately hard to make sense of, particularly after someone starts following a critical mass of people. While Twitter users should -- and often do -- carefully select who they follow, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in managing the content jumble. Every time I see someone I really want to follow, I say to myself, “Can I really add another one? Will I ever even see their content?” It’s like managing an overstuffed toy closet.

Indeed, the fact that most Twitter content quickly gets lost is one of the main problems Twitter execs seem to think an algorithm-centered feed might solve. Just about everyone in social media has quoted a figure Facebook gave out several years ago about how much News Feed content each Facebook user sees: it’s a measly 16%. On Twitter, that figure simply has to be even lower; first, because Twitter’s social graph lends itself, on a user-by-user basis, to building bigger networks, and second, because most tweets – partly because they are not subject to a favorite-making algorithm – disappear before they are ever seen. Retweets certainly increase an individual tweet’s shelf life, but you pretty much never see a tweet that “lasts” within Twitter for more than a few hours. On Facebook, certain posts – like say, most of the really fun ones from my awesome MediaPost colleague Barbara Lippert – can last for a few days. Fix those problems, and you have better engagement.

The Twitter-whiners argue that an algorithm-driven timeline might stifle less popular voices that need to be heard, and they have a point. The obvious workaround – as the Gigaom story points out – is to let the users decide, offering them the option of either the traditional, reverse-chronological feed, or a curated one. However, only 10% of Twitter users in the poll cited above favor giving users that choice.

And these are the people who pride themselves on being on the cutting edge of change? Well, maybe not so much.

3 comments about "Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad Algorithm? Twitter Users!".
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  1. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, September 5, 2014 at 9:02 p.m.

    Thanks for the shout-out, CPT! And I love when the Social Media Insider gets snide. And, oh, right, I agree with you 100%!

  2. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, September 5, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.

    Thanks, Ms. Lippert:) Your FB posts are one of the (not so numerous) highlights of the week!
    CPT

  3. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, September 7, 2014 at 12:16 p.m.

    A good part of the problem here lies in Twitter's culture of you-follow-me-so-I-must-follow-you, and when-you-unfollow-me-I-must-unfollow-you. How about we follow only those people we find interesting/worthwhile/or whatever our criterion is? And no tears when someone IMMEDIATELY unfollows us after we've unfollowed them...

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