September 10, 2014

If you've been watching anything related to Twitter in the last week, chances are you heard the news that they may start incorporating "an algorithm" into the Twitter stream. The thought that we may see Twitter filtering our streams is sending the blogosphere and Twitterverse into chaos. For right now, nothing is confirmed or determined. But that hasn't stopped a lot of people from freaking out about it.

Before I add to the blubbering of ideas out there, let's clear up (sort of) what this Twitter filtering involves, if anything.

According to Twitter CFO, Anthony Noto, Twitter has "a great data set of topical information about topical tweets." All of this information allows them to provide "an algorithm that delivers the depth and breadth of the content we have on a specific topic and then eventually as it relates to people."

So, in simple speak, he's basically saying that they have a ton of data and research that shows how tweets of different topics are incorporated and engaged with by different users. Therefore, they can use this information to ensure that users get the most topically relevant content in their streams.

Twitter's current "plan" for the algorithm isn't to turn it into a completely revised stream. It would be more of an opportunity to return a tweet deemed valuable to the top of the stream if Twitter thinks you may have missed this valuable post previously. It's not hiding anything or showing you something new... just re-showing you what you would have already seen.

Ok, time for my thoughts on this...

Here's the thing. It sounds all good "in theory". As marketers and advertisers and businesses, we value getting the right content in front of the right people. It sounds nice that something "good" we may have missed would be reintroduced for us to see.

But, in practice, we've seen the disaster that the algorithm caused (and still causes) on Facebook. The Facebook algorithm undergoes revisions nearly daily. They run rampant "tests" and data analysis on our feeds to see what does and doesn't work. And we see only a fraction of the stories we've elected to see. And let's be real, the "rejuvenation" of old posts deemed important is a swamp mess of the same posts over and over and over. Hint to Facebook, if I didn't like the post 2 days ago and again yesterday, I still don't like it today!

So, yes, I worry about what Twitter would consider worthy of returning to the top of my stream.

But I also worry about it from the perspective of saturation. Let's say, hypothetically, I start tweeting about and engaging in conversations around topic X. It's a big news story, trending worldwide on Twitter. So, Twitter starts highlighting these stories in my stream.

But, will they only highlight stories of the same "perspective" or will it be all stories related to it. And just because I'm passionate about topic X doesn't mean I stopped caring about topics A, B, and C. But if Twitter is selectively showing me content on X, am I missing out on tweets about A, B, and C?

The other point I think has to be made is that Twitter already has some the best in-app, personalized filtering available. They're called "lists". And every good Twitter user uses them. Doggedly so, actually. Because we understand the insane speed at which tweets can fly by. If you follow more than a couple hundred people it can be near impossible to stay on top of your stream.

But that's why we use lists. Or follow a hashtag. Because this way we can filter information for exactly what we want to see. We don't need algorithms or bots or Twitter enginerds to tell us what we need to see. We tell Twitter what we want to see.

And beyond this minimized Twitter filtering that they are proposing, there is of course the concern about hiding or filtering out certain information or tweets, in time. While they don't currently plan to revise the tweet stream, there's nothing to say they won't do it eventually.

The biggest problem with social media platforms as businesses is that they need to make money and keep investors happy. So they need more people to use the platform and they need to sell more ads.

Twitter is not exempt from this. I get that.

And if they start filtering certain tweets, they introduce the ability to filter in ads. Not a bad thing per se. And it's good for those of us in marketing 😉

What I'm more worried about is them needing to find new users. Let's face it, Facebook isn't what it used to be. We all still use it and we all complain about it. It's the world's largest market/research database and an insanely resourceful way to stay in touch with your family.

But when you want to have a conversation in real time, you go to Twitter. Because there's no filter. It's live, real, and full of conversation. You can spew of thought after thought and comment after comment.

But in an attempt to woo those fickle Facebook users, I worry that Twitter is trying to make it too Facebook-esque, thereby making it an easy (almost familiar) transition away from Facebook.

I get that they want new users and Twitter is definitely different from Facebook. But turning it into Facebook, the site that everyone complains about, isn't my idea of "fixing" the problem.

And in Twitter's defense, this isn't what they're doing - or planning to do. And I hope that's really the case. I hope they continue to honor the platform that the 271 million monthly active users love and enjoy.

Before I leave you to ponder your thoughts on this issue, I want to clarify that I am not one of those purist, afraid of change type people. I understand businesses and social media platforms need to evolve and grow. And I welcome these changes and growth most of the time.

There are plenty of times that we don't really know what we want because we don't know the possibilities. And those types of changes (the revolutionary, significant, impactful, and innovative changes) are what we need. Copying the "popular kid" to get ahead isn't any of these things.

So, I want to hear from you. What do you think about Twitter filtering our streams? Join in the conversation in the comments below!

Did you find this helpful? Please share:
  1. While the likelihood of Twitter introducing such an algorithm is likely in my opinion I do not consider it to be a negative point, although it is certainly one which will consumer the time of social media marketers like myself. Not only will it encourage quality audience building but aid users who find the fast and cluttered nature of Twitter a little overwhelming.

    Fantastic article Jenn, I look forward to future posts.

    1. The algorithm changes (if they happen as discussed) would help “new” Twitter users and those overwhelmed by the fast pace of Twitter. And that’s definitely an advantage for expanding their user base and becoming more approachable. But, then what’s really to separate Twitter from Facebook?
      I’m happy to hear though that you aren’t worried about the algorithm changes. Like all changes in social media, some will hate them, others will love them, and the rest will be indifferent 😉

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