In March 2016, Twitter made the switch away from a purely chronological timeline to one partially ordered by algorithms. By looking at Twitter’s origins — a simple way to update groups of people — the switch away from ordering information chronologically is more interesting than it first seems, and represents the state of the internet and the way we use it in 2017.
The origins of Twitter
When it started, Twitter (or twttr as it was then called) was just an SMS service linked to a website.
Famously influential tech critic Om Malik wrote the world’s first blog post on Twitter a few months after it launched. In the post, he wrote:
“Twttr has married Short Code Messaging, SMS with a way to create social groups. By sending a text message to a short code (for TWTTR) you can send your location information, your mood information or whatever and share it with people who are on your social-mob! Best part – no installation necessary!”
Originally, it behaved like an actual text messaging service. You’d text your tweet to the Twitter number, and then it’d buzz the phones of everyone who followed you as an SMS. In those days, Twitter wasn’t an app, which meant that if you turned off notifications for SMS messages to stop the constant influx of tweets, you’d end up being unable to get SMS altogether. As you can imagine, that infuriated users; Malik complains of “annoying SMS messages from nocturnal friends”, while Sakana.fr praised it, saying “This is getting connected”.
At first, Twitter was a novelty. An early dive into what eventually morphed into a widespread obsession with staying on top of every new development in the world. But what’s the point of it?
What’s the point of Twitter?
Twitter — and any social media platform where you can follow accounts — is a way to curate a world view. This is especially true with Twitter, which is mostly used to share news, post links, and have direct conversations with people you may or may not know in real life.
Choosing to follow certain people is a way of voluntarily putting yourself inside a filter bubble. But the thing with Twitter is that it’s one of the more chronologically ordered social networks. Until quite recently, you were shown tweets in the order they happened.
Unlike Facebook, which ruthlessly organizes content based on your activity history, Twitter imitates the real fast-paced action of life.
Twitter and the filter bubble
Whether or not you see a tweet largely depends on whether you were right there in the moment to see it. Users don’t have a habit of trawling far back through their timelines or going back through the profiles of individuals; whatever’s happening right now is what you see right now.
The ever-changing state of a user’s Twitter timeline mimics live television, which again is just real life seen through a lens. I’ve made the same argument about Snapchat too. Snapchat doesn’t just push old content down, it destroys it.
And maybe that’s how social networks work best. There’s enough permanent content out there. News sites might have the same headline all day, but you can count on Twitter to give you a surprising experience every time you refresh the timeline.
In a world where Google and Facebook refer almost 80% of all traffic to media sites, it’s clear that the harshest algorithms are the ones that resonate most with users (and stockholders). With Twitter, you curate your own world view based on who you choose to follow and then chance upon information almost randomly. With Google, you have it curated for you based on a complex score derived from backlinks and keyword relevance, and Facebook makes recommendations based on your activity.
It’s hard to decide which of these platforms contributes most towards the filter bubble if you use them equally, but in my experience, Twitter pushes you further out of your comfort zone and helps you discover new things.
For example, say I was friends with someone on Facebook who shared 2 stories: one about Trump, and one about Amazon. If Facebook knew I was into stories about Trump, it’d be more likely to push that up my timeline than the Amazon piece. Twitter, however, gives equal (arbitrary) weight to both because it displays things chronologically. This means I can find out about topics far outside my little bubble, just by living chronologically and not by the rules of algorithms.
But, like I’ve hinted at so far, in March 2016 Twitter quietly switched every user over to an algorithmic timeline. While there was outrage against the Facebook-ization of Twitter (#RIPTwitter), only 2% of users opted out…
Why Twitter eventually surrendered to algorithms
There’s a fine balance between holding onto your original product vision and actually making any money. Twitter found this out the hard way.
In the space of two years, its stock price crashed by over 70%. For the nth time in history, the now-cliched death knell was a-ringin’.
In Twitter’s letter to shareholders in February 2017, CEO Jack Dorsey wrote that “increases in both audience and engagement were driven in part by product improvements, including better relevance in both the timeline and notifications”.
With 80% of referral traffic to media outlets coming from two of the most tightly algorithmically curated sites on the web, Twitter knew it had to either grit its teeth and go along with something proven to make money, or die the death it’s been forecast for years.
As soon as you start following a few hundred active users on Twitter, there’s no way you can get a good night’s sleep and stay up to date on the comings-and-goings of your own personal bubble.
It’s sad, it’s simple, and it’s proven by the fact that even Twitter surrendered in the end: the internet, without algorithmic control, is just too chaotic to be usable. Whether we like it or not, a chronological timeline is not the future.