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Twitter Isn't Becoming Facebook, but It Is Using More Algorithms

Twitter's "algorithmic timeline" update is here, but it should look very familiar.


Twitter users were up in arms over the weekend following reports that the company was looking to build an algorithmic timeline akin to Facebook’s — a key change from the company’s current setup, which shows users tweets in reverse chronological order.

The news prompted user panic, widespread adoption of the hashtag #RIPTwitter and a tweetstorm from CEO Jack Dorsey that attempted to calm everyone down.

Upon further review, Twitter is not becoming Facebook, although it will start using an algorithm to show you content you might otherwise miss. Twitter announced as much Wednesday, releasing an update that’s similar to what The Verge reported over the weekend: Twitter will soon show you popular tweets at the top of your timeline that were posted since the last time you used the app.

What is puzzling here is that Twitter already offers this product. It’s called “while you were away” and it does pretty much the same thing, and even uses the same technology. The only real difference, according to Twitter’s consumer product head Jeff Seibert, is that this new feature, which doesn’t have a name, will show people algorithmically selected tweets “much more frequently” than the “while you were away” feature does.

The point of all this is to keep the best Twitter content from getting buried, thus keeping users more engaged with the product. If you follow a lot of people, it can be hard to dig through all the tweets you missed since last opening the app. Twitter thinks it can find the tweets you’ll like and make sure you see them right away.

Twitter is desperate to show Wall Street it can either add new users or keep making more money from its existing ones. (Preferably both.) Seibert says the feature is targeted at current users more than potential users, although a great algorithm could help with recruitment.

“[Core users] are our microphone,” Seibert explained. “If we make the product delightful for them, they will bring their colleagues and their friends and their family onto the platform. That’s the goal here.”

The timing of the launch is not coincidental. Twitter reports earnings Wednesday afternoon and the new feature will give executives something to point to on the call. Twitter has to showcase how it’s going to grow — or, if it’s not going to grow, how it’s going to keep its current user base engaged. This gives them something to talk about.

It’s worth noting that CEO Dorsey walked a fine line during his weekend tweetstorm. Among his many tweets was one that included the line, “We never planned to reorder timelines next week.”

Wellllll. This certainly isn’t an algorithmic timeline in the way many people imagined it, but Twitter is creating a new order by placing older tweets at the top of the timeline.

This isn’t the first time Dorsey has responded to news leaks at the company. He tweeted after a bunch of his top executives left. He also weighed in on the company’s plan to expand the character limit. In this case, Dorsey gave himself some wiggle room, and mentioned “while you were away” in one of his tweets, hinting heavily at what was to come.

One key note: Seibert says this feature can be turned off in Twitter’s settings. The company will start turning it on for users automatically over the next few weeks, and will send each user a prompt explaining the feature and telling them how to turn it off in case they want to. “We want you to experience it,” Seibert said.

The new update is available worldwide on iOS, Android and the Web beginning Wednesday, but won’t be turned on for people until the coming weeks.

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