Earlier this year, when Twitter released its quarterly financial results, CEO Dick Costolo was asked whether the platform would ever implement a Facebook-style filtering algorithm, he hedged his answer by saying he wouldn’t “rule it out.” According to some recent comments from chief financial officer Anthony Noto, however, the company is doing a lot more than not ruling it out — it sounds like a done deal. And while that might help improve engagement with new users, it could increase the dissatisfaction some older users feel with the service.
At a financial conference Wednesday in New York, the CFO provided some hints about the feature roadmap that new head of product Daniel Graf — who came to Twitter from Google in April — has in mind for the service, a list that includes better search and a move into group chat. But he also suggested that the traditional reverse-chronological user stream could become a thing of the past, as the company tries to improve its relevance. As The Wall Street Journal put it:
Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order… 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.”
This might seem like a small thing, similar to Twitter’s move to insert tweets that other people have favorited into a user’s stream if there aren’t any recent tweets to show them. But as the controversy over that feature shows, the Twitter chronological-order model is at the core of what the service offers for many users — and a number of them have specifically said it is the thing they like most about Twitter when compared with Facebook.
The most recent example of how stark the differences can be between a filtered feed and an unfiltered one was the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and how that showed up so dramatically on Twitter but was barely present for most users of Facebook. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted, that kind of filtering has social consequences — and journalism professor Emily Bell pointed out that doing this makes Facebook and Twitter into information gatekeepers in much the same way newspapers used to be.
The impetus for Twitter to filter is obvious: The service needs to show growth in both number of users and engagement in order to satisfy investors, and finding relevant content as a new user can be a challenge, which is why the company recently updated its so-called “on-boarding” process.
The reverse-chronological feed has already been tampered with by features like Twitter’s conversation threading, which connects responses in an attempt to show users an entire discussion — another feature that some users love and others hate. But moving to a totally filtered “relevance” approach would be a much more significant move, even if Twitter provided an opt-out or allowed users to turn it off. And it could change the nature of the service dramatically.
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