Skepticism Warranted in the Panic Over Twitter Changes

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The thing that’s been giving the online world a collective ulcer is the idea that Twitter is going to fundamentally change the way its service works by bringing Facebook-style curation to its real-time firehose. But is it really? Despite the recent rending of garments by the Twitter faithful, I have found that skepticism is warranted.

The panic began with the implementation of a system whereby tweets favorited by people you follow might appear out of context in your timeline, and things you favorite might emerge likewise in other people’s feeds. I wrote about how this was an ominous sign of Twitter mucking with what makes it great: real-time access to the zeitgeist, filtered only by whom you choose to follow.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter’s CFO Anthony Noto had indicated that changes were coming to the traditional Twitter timeline:

Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,” Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. “Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.”

Mathew Ingram’s analysis of this at GigaOm is what really had people reaching for their pitchforks and torches, writing that it “sounds like a done deal” and that coming modifications “could change the nature of the service dramatically.”

That sounds really scary to folks who have stuck with Twitter since the beginning, and truly value what it provides. It stands as a stark contrast to the heavily-curated experience of Facebook, its immediacy giving it its power and unique position in the media universe.

But as even Ingram acknowledged in a subsequent post, this change — an algorithmic approach to the timeline — was probably meant for the “discover” tab of the site, which is already heavily curated by the service, and within Twitter’s search feature. In fact, that’s what the Journal article even says:

Noto said the company’s new head of product, Daniel Graf, has made improving the service’s search capability one of his top priorities for 2015.

“If you think about our search capabilities we have a great data set of topical information about topical tweets,” Noto said. “The hierarchy within search really has to lend itself to that taxonomy.” With that comes the need for “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,” he added.

Sure sounds to me like he’s just talking about search, since that’s what he actually says. It didn’t help matters, I suppose, that whoever wrote the Journal’s headline chose to blare, “Twitter Puts the Timeline on Notice.” Because, no, it didn’t. Not here, anyway.

After Ingram’s first piece, in fact, Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO (who I presume is in a position to know) tweeted, “[Noto] never said a ‘filtered feed is coming whether you like it or not’. Goodness, what an absurd synthesis of what was said.

What really settles all of this for me, though, is an interview given by Katie Jacobs Stanton, who is Twitter’s new media chief. What I read from what she tells Re/Code is that Twitter’s current and long-term strategies continue to revolve around the real-time, unfiltered timeline. Here’s Stanton on Twitter as a companion to live TV viewing (emphasis mine):

What’s happened is that every day our users have been able to transform the service into this second screen experience while watching live TV because Twitter has a lot of those characteristics. It’s live, it’s public, it’s conversational, it’s mobile. Television is something really unique, really powerful about Twitter and we’ve obviously made a big investment in that whole experience.

Here she is on the value Twitter provides during breaking news events:

We have a number of unique visitors that come to Twitter to get breaking news, to hear what people have to say. Joan Rivers died [Thursday] and people were grieving on Twitter and talking about her, but they’re also coming to listen to the voices on Twitter as they pay respect to Joan Rivers. This happens all the time. There’s also the broader syndication of tweets. News properties of the world embed tweets and cite tweets. That’s really unique.

Note how she emphasizes the fact that Twitter is not incidentally serving as this kind of platform, but that this makes it uniquely crucial to the wider media universe, for consumers of news and those producing it.

She later refers to Twitter as “the operating system of the news.” This does not sound to me like a service that is intent on dismantling what its own media boss is touting as its chief virtue.

Twitter will of course go through changes, and its experiments with favorites-from-nowhere is an example of that. It won’t always be exactly as it is. But I’m beginning to believe that the recent panic (including my own) is unwarranted. I suspect that the people at Twitter understand why people use it as religiously and obsessively as they do, that they use it very differently from the way they use Facebook, and that there needs to always be a way for a user to tap into the raw stream.

Maybe, down the road, the initial experience Twitter presents a user with is one that is more curated, more time-shifted, but I suspect that the firehose will always be there for faithful.

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