Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Will Twitter's New Algorithm Be Its Downfall

If you follow technology news, news regarding Twitter in particular, then you have probably heard that Twitter plans to roll out a timeline that uses an algorithm that sorts tweets by relevance rather than by the time at which they were posted. Some Twitter users have already expressed their outrage at the prospect, once more complaining that Twitter is becoming like Facebook.

It is difficult to tell how concerned Twitter users should be with regards to their timelines, displayed in reverse chronological order from the very beginning, suddenly being sorted by relevance according to an algorithm. In an article in Forbes technology reporter Jeff Bercovici states that when Twitter introduces its new timeline sorted by relevance, it will be as a new stream not unlike the "Discover" or "Activity" streams introduced quite some time ago. He points out that in an appearance last Wednesday Twitter CFO Anthony Noto stated, "Individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm." Certainly Mr. Noto's statement could lead one to believe that when and if the new timeline is introduced, it will simply be as an additional stream and it will be not be forced on users.

Of course, even if Twitter introduces its new timeline sorted by an algorithm as an additional stream like the "Discover" or "Activity" streams, Twitter users might still have reason for concern. Social media sites have a history of introducing changes that are unpopular with users. Indeed, Facebook is notorious for this (anyone remember the double column Timeline?). While not nearly as bad as Facebook, Twitter has in the past been guilty of forcing changes on users that users really do not like. A year ago Twitter introduced a new way of viewing conversations that proved very unpopular with users. More recently Twitter forced a new profile layout that users disliked, and that once more brought cries of "Twitter is becoming more like Facebook!" It is not inconceivable, then, that somewhere down the road, Twitter could replace its old timeline, sorted in reverse chronological order, with the new timeline sorted by relevance. And they could do this even if users do not like or do not use the new timeline. After all, most people still don't like that new profile layout either.

If that does indeed take place, then I think Twitter could be living on borrowed time. It is not simply a case that in sorting tweets by when they are posted Twitter is ideal for learning and reading news. It is also the case that by and large users of social media prefer their timelines, news feeds, streams, or whatever one wishes to call them to be sorted in reverse chronological order. Despite its insistence on "Top Stories" (their term for their news feed sorted by "relevance") being the default view, it has always seemed obvious to me that Facebook users prefer the "Most Recent" news feed, in which posts are sorted in reverse chronological order. Indeed, Facebook users have always complained about "Top Stories" being the default and have expressed outrage any time Facebook attempted to do away with the "Most Recent" feed.

Given Facebook users prefer having their news feeds sorted by reverse chronological order after years of the social network trying to force the "Top Stories" feed upon them, I can guess what will happen if Twitter entirely replaced its old timeline with one that sorts tweets by relevance. Twitter users would be outraged. They would send angry tweets to Twitter and some would even start up petitions. And if Twitter failed to restore the old timeline, sorted in reverse chronological order, in a timely manner, then users would start to leave. Once that happened, I think Twitter would die a slow, lingering death.

Now some would argue that Twitter would not die, as it would simply pick up new users. I seriously doubt that myself. First, it must be considered that Twitter is relatively old for a social media site and not counted among the "hot", new sites out there. It then seems unlikely to me that a significant number of teenagers and college age people are going to start using Twitter regardless of what changes Twitter makes. Granted, the average Twitter user tends to be younger than the average Facebook user these days, but I suspect the average Snapchat and Instagram users are younger still. Second, there is more competition with regards to social media sites than there ever has been before. In addition to Twitter there is Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, and many more. People would need a compelling reason to use Twitter over other social media sites, and if they changed their timeline I do not think they would have one. Quite simply, in having a timeline determined by an algorithm, Twitter really would not be that different from Facebook. Ultimately, Twitter could start losing more users than it is gaining and in the end simply dwindle away.

Of course, at the moment there is no way to tell what will happen with regards to Twitter in the next few years. It is quite possible that Twitter will introduce the new timeline determined by an algorithm as an additional  stream only to find it is unpopular and as a result the timeline sorted by reverse chronological order will remain firmly in place. In fact, I suspect that this might be the most likely thing to happen. Granted Twitter has made unpopular changes in the past, but I do not think they would make a change that would fundamentally alter the site to the point that long term users desert it in droves. It is one thing to change the profile layout. It is quite another to change what makes Twitter, well, "Twitter".

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