Twitter is Monkeying with What Makes it Great

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Twitter has a lot of problems. It doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to deal with abuse and harassment on its platform, it’s managed to antagonize the developer community by limiting anyone’s ability to make new apps and interfaces to the service, and, oh yeah, it still doesn’t really know how to make money for itself. But the core service is something truly valuable and truly simple, and in that simplicity it has been – dare I say it? Yes I dare! – revolutionary.

But under the shadow of Facebook’s supermassive user base and Google’s vast resources underpinning so much of what we know of as the Web, Twitter seems willing to at least experiment with making fundamental changes to what makes it so great in the first place.

Anyone using the Twitter web interface might have noticed already that not only are retweets (when one posts someone else’s tweet on their own timeline) appearing in users’ feeds, but so are other people’s favorites (when you click the star on a tweet). Not all favorites from all followers, but those determined by algorithm to be of potential interest to you.

Here’s how Twitter itself explains the new order (with my emphasis):

[W]hen we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.

That’s right, Twitter is playing with building its own Facebook-like curation brain. Or to put it another way, Twitter is putting kinks in its own firehose.

This is disconcerting to longtime Twitter users for a number of reasons. First is the relinquishing of control being forced on the user: what was once a raw feed of posts from a list of people entirely determined by the user will become one where content is inserted that the user may not even want there. As John Gruber put it, “That your timeline only shows what you’ve asked to be shown is a defining feature of Twitter.” Maybe not for long.

Another issue is that this content can be time-shifted, meaning that the immediacy of dipping into one’s Twitter stream for the second-by-second zeitgeist will become diluted at best, and meaningless at worst.

But also, this one relatively minor change in the grand scheme of things signifies an entirely different concept for what a “favorite” means on Twitter. It’s really never been entirely clear to me what clicking the star on someone’s tweet was supposed to signify, but as with many things on Twitter, folks have made it their own. For some it’s the equivalent of a nod or smile of approval without a verbal response, for others it serves the purpose of a bookmark, so you can return to it later. It’s never been meant as a “signal” to Twitter to provide more content like that tweet. Importantly, it’s always mainly been between the user and the original tweeter (not entirely, as one can click through on a given tweet and see all those who have favorited something), and now that’s completely gone. Now you have to assume that your favorites, along with your retweets, will be broadcast, put in front of people in their timelines.

Dan Frommer says changes like this may be necessary for Twitter’s longtime viability:

The bottom line is that Twitter needs to keep growing. The simple stream of tweets has served it well so far, and preservationists will always argue against change. But if additions like these—or even more significant ones, like auto-following newly popular accounts, resurfacing earlier conversations, or more elaborate features around global events, like this summer’s World Cup—could make Twitter useful to billions of potential users, it will be worth rewriting Twitter’s basic rules.

But with events around the world being as they are, the value of the Twitter firehose hasn’t been this clear since perhaps Iran’s Green Revolution. For Twitter to be monkeying with its fundamentals, the things that make it stand apart from Facebook and other platforms, is frightening. I have to hope that if Twitter does take this too far, that another platform will emerge that can be all that was good about Twitter, and also attract a critical mass of users to make it valuable.

Maybe we should have given App.net more of a shot.

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