Twitter Algorithms

By | 2016/02/06

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This week’s tempest in a tweetpot is bubbling over because Twitter has announced they’re going to replace the current chronological stream we all know and love with a Facebook-like “algorithm-based timeline”. Naturally, people being people, the standard reaction is “OMG NO! CHANGE WE FEAR IT WTF!!!” followed by a stream of eggplant and hotdog emojis hitting a monkey in the face.

Speculation ensues.

There is some validity to this concern. Journos rely on Twitter for up-to-date information for breaking news. This becomes problematic if the timeline isn’t accessible directly, and it would be a strong move if they made that available by subscription to everyone. It used to be possible for news organizations to pay for high speed access to their datastream, though I’m not sure if they still offer that. Certainly not for mortal humans. Then again, if most of Twitter continues to work the way it does now, and searches are visible via the current livestream mechanism, this concern won’t be a big deal because you’ll find the hashtag in your “Breaking” or “Trending” section, click on it and see the full stream.

Using Twitter as a mechanism for social activism is problematic. The 140 character limit isn’t enough to write anything meaningful and the kernel gets reduced to a hashtag. If it becomes popular, that hashtag soon gets flooded, sometimes obscuring the original message. At least you can save it for later. Obscuring the timeline behind an algorithm could have a chilling effect on Twitter as an activism tool and the conspiracy-minded might be wondering if that’s one of the real reasons behind it.

I think this is the crux of the problem: If you don’t know how the algorithm works and how it can be tuned by the people running it, then you have no guarantees you’re seeing what you want to see. Remember when Google started tailoring search results for people based on their “preferences”? There was a brief outcry against that but now it’s no big deal that your search results and mine don’t show the same thing when we search for “local preowned medical instruments”.

Some have recommended switching to using Lists to view the timeline as it is now. It’s a feature most people don’t use, myself included, but may end up being a sneaky way around the new algorithmic features. Still others are advocating for the creation of a distributed, publicly-controlled Twitter alternative. (Remember identi.ca? App.net? No?) These services tend not to do very well, get sparsely populated by whatever self-selecting subgroups find them first and then die slow lingering deaths of irrelevancy. Maybe they were ahead of their time and we’re ready for something like that, but good luck moving a jillion people to a new service.

Maybe it won’t be horrible! Maybe everybody’s just getting freaked-out for no reason! It’s just Twitter, people. The vast majority of it is completely uninteresting to the vast majority of the population. It’s for marketing and funny pictures and vines (ha) and occasionally for tracking breaking news. Will I miss individuals’ late night, can’t sleep tweets or today’s sandwich? Maybe, maybe not. Twitter is a forgettable service 99% of the time. When I take time off to disconnect, one of the things I always realize is just how much I don’t miss it.

#RIPTwitter

Update! Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey loves the livestream and wants everyone to know of course they’ll be keeping it. There’s even a Verge article.

A little more transparency goes a long way, sometimes.

Put your words in the talk hole!