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This article was published on February 6, 2016

#RIPTwitter? Calm down – algorithmic tweets won’t ruin Twitter

#RIPTwitter? Calm down – algorithmic tweets won’t ruin Twitter
Martin SFP Bryant
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Martin SFP Bryant


Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

Update: An earlier version of this article referenced a faked screenshot of the new feed. We doff our caps to you, sir.

Update 2: Jack Dorsey has spoken out, denying an algorithmic feed is coming next week, but he doesn’t deny algorithmic elements are coming to Twitter in some form. Either way, real-time Twitter is alive and well. Read more on Dorsey’s statement.

Update 3: In case you were still in any doubt that some form of algorithmic feed is being tested, The Verge has more details.


What’s happening?

The Twitter-sphere has got itself into a tizzy over a report from BuzzFeed that algorithmically-sorted tweets could be switched on as soon as next week. We knew Twitter was testing the idea but it looks like it’s coming to us all soon.

BuzzFeed has a good track record with Twitter scoops, so we can treat the report as reliable, even if Twitter hasn’t officially commented. (See update above for Jack Dorsey’s comment).

Algorithmic what now?

Twitter has always been about all your tweets, sorted in reverse chronological order. By using an algorithm to determine the tweets you see, Twitter could show you only the most popular content from people you follow, or what it thinks you’d find interesting based on what it knows about you.

What does it look like?

For an idea of the kinds of tweets Twitter may display in this feed, take a look at the ‘Top Tweets’ section when you do a search at Twitter.com,’ or the ‘While you were away’ feature that is already displayed when you’ve not looked at your feed for a few hours.

Twitter tends to do a good job of showing interesting tweets from while I was sleeping, when I wake up in the morning. I could have done without the cheesecake tweet though – I have no idea what that’s all about.

while you were away

The ‘Highlights‘ feature in Twitter’s Android app has been doing a similar job for some time, too.

Why Twitter doing this?

Twitter’s under pressure to grow its user base as its stock market performance continues to flounder. Encouraging new people to try Twitter and stick around has been its strategy for some time – hence we’ve seen Moments as a way of making the service more accessible, and plans for longer tweets as a way of allowing people to say more in one go.

Why does it have to keep growing? Can’t it just charge me a subscription fee to make more money?

‘Take my money!’ is the common cry of devoted users of free services that are making unpopular decisions in order to grow their user bases or revenue. Remember all the people who wanted to pay Facebook when it increased its focus on ads?

The thing is that Silicon Valley boardrooms are averse to charging users for mass-market social platforms. The theory is that few people will actually pay, despite what they say they’d hypothetically do given the chance, and it’s better that social media companies plough resources into better ad tech than ‘pro’ features that will only ever be used by a tiny proportion of users.

If Twitter was taken private again (which is possible this year if a serious potential buyer emerges) there’s a chance (as slim one, but a chance) that its new owners would go down the ‘freemium’ route instead, and give users a chance to pay. Don’t expect that option under the current management; there’s been no indication they’re considering it.

What if I use a third-party app like Tweetbot?

It looks like – for now – the algorithmic feed will be limited to Twitter’s own apps.

So, is this RIP Twitter?

No. The new algorithmic feed will be a way of making sure light users of the service get more out of it, more quickly. Heavy users who are fans of the traditional timeline will likely still be able to access it.

There’s simply too much riding on that traditional reverse-chronological view for Twitter to just kill it. Journalists (one of the key Twitter demographics when it comes to influencing others to talk about the service and try it) need the reverse-chronological view to do their jobs. And anyway – if you can’t see all the tweets in order, how would new tweets become popular enough to be shown in the ‘Top Tweets’ section we see in the screenshot above?

So relax, let’s see what Twitter actually does. Enjoy your weekend and enjoy Twitter for what it is now, not what it might become.

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