Jasmine Kirkbride is BookMachine’s new blogger and this is her second blog post. Jasmin is the Editorial Intern at Tenebris Books. She is a freelance editor and published author. You can find her on Twitter @jasminkirkbride.
Tweeps are panicking about the future of Twitter as, in recent months, its famous reverse-chronological timeline, has come under threat. Discussions are now underway on the possibility of introducing algorithmically curated timelines to sort the Tweet from the chaff – but is this really a good thing?
The changing face of Twitter
On the 7th November 2014, Twitter celebrated its first year as a trading business. It’s been a tumultuous year, as the site has consistently failed to meet predicted user sign-up figures, throwing shareholders into fits of anxiety and confidence by turns. Still hoping to become one of the tech giants, Twitter’s had to look at why people aren’t signing up.
It seems that Twitter’s current interface is too difficult for newbies to understand: people are taking a week to understand the platform, when they should be able to get it in and hour. Efforts to create a more accommodating user experience over the past year include introducing a header ‘cover’ image, inline images and threaded conversations, but conjecture abounds as to what will come next. What is the future of Twitter? Perhaps most concerning is the talk of introducing filtering algorithms.
What is a filtering algorithm?
Filtering algorithms are used on other social media sites to sort timelines into the most ‘relevant’ posts, instead of simply displaying them in chronological order. Facebook infamously hides and promotes posts based on unseen data and LinkedIn uses similar methods.
Implementing such algorithms on Twitter could have an enormous impact: what happens to live-Tweets if your view of the conversation is being edited? What meaning would trending topics have when everything you are presented with is already being pulled apart for its popularity? What about the increasing dominance of promoted, paid-for Tweets?
But do we really need to hit our panic stations? Michael Noto was famously misquoted earlier in September this year as being in support of filtered feeds ‘whether users like it or not’. Yet, his original statement reads more ambiguously: that the traditional reverse-chronological timeline arrangement “isn’t the most relevant for the user.”
It’s true that Twitter is a firehose of information: being away from it for even a few days can completely isolate you from what has been happening. The current user base is one that loves to be constantly fed information, but the average Joe doesn’t want to be inundated – they just want to be updated! This is where the sign-ups are being lost.
The simplest answer to the problem would be to have more viewing options for your timeline, perhaps similar to following hashtags and choosing to see either the ‘Top’ or the ‘Most Recent’ posts. Based on this year’s experiments, it’s looking likely this might be the route Twitter takes, at least in the short term.
So why the panic?
Earlier this year, when Twitter was raging over Ferguson, Facebook was popping up ice bucket challenge videos. This wasn’t because of a lack of content about Ferguson being posted on Facebook, but because of timeline ‘curation’ based on what the algorithms deemed ‘relevant’ to the user.
This is a telling anecdote. We use Twitter to market brands, products, ourselves, but ultimately the platform became and remains successful because it is a bastion of free speech. It’s a unique platform: nobody gets hidden, nobody gets promoted, everyone can post. Everyone can express themselves with absolute freedom and be heard as equals. Used in a similar way to Facebook or LinkedIn, an algorithmically curated Twitter feed could undermine or destroy this freedom.
We’re panicking because we’re afraid that incremental changes will lead, ultimately, to censorship. So, the real question is: do we trust Twitter to maintain its individuality or do we think it will crumble under the weight of its shareholders?