Twitter has a problem. It needs to build its audience, both in numbers and in eyeball time, to justify and grow its $31 billion market value. One of the most obvious weapons it could deploy is a news feed "curated" by computer algorithms, like Facebook's. But that could destroy the very thing that makes Twitter valuable -- and it's looking like that's exactly what it will do. Twitter's problem is that it's a niche player. Its punchy, global, real-time river of what's happening now now now now now is exactly what's needed by those whose social or professional status depends on having the best information -- journalists, politicians, PR and marketing operatives, or just those people in every social group who always seem to know what's going on. These "infovores" are the ones using high-end Twitter client software. They handcraft lists of users who tweet about specific topics. They invest the time needed to learn the tools to filter the planet's tweets into multiple streams in real time, panning for gold. But such people are a small minority. The majority of Twitter's current users, and the vast majority of those who might yet become Twitter users, only check in occasionally. They use the Twitter website or the default smartphone app. What they see is the most recent dozen or so tweets from whatever random selection of people they've chosen to follow. Chances are, they don't make a lot of sense out of context. Twitter's challenge is to make the service "more relevant" to such users. Last Wednesday, chief financial officer Anthony Noto gave the clearest indication yet that "more relevant" would include an algorithm-driven content feed. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
"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.'"
It's all part of Twitter's aim to be seen as a source of real-time news and entertainment -- as a media company, rather than as a platform for social messaging. Having chosen that path a few years back, this quest for "more relevant" is inevitable. But that raw chronological view, combined with the asymmetrical ability to follow whoever and whatever you wish, regardless of their relationship to you, is precisely the core Twitter experience. As I've written previously, Twitter is humanity, warts and all. That's the way we heavy users like it. Or as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote, "I'm not on Twitter just so people see my tweets but b/c my network finds me stuff. Fascinating stuff. From people the algorithm will ignore." What's more, as Tom Watson wrote at Forbes, it's why Twitter holds a unique place politically:
"As a powerful platform for social change underlying reports of activists, organizers, and revolutionaries, Twitter's unredacted timeline -- you can get everything you sign up for -- is a promise of truth and transparency. "A curated timeline powered by an algorithm designed to increase advertising sales kills the service as a vital network for change, dissent, disruption, and political action."
The difference can be stark. As Mathew Ingram pointed out at GigaOm last month, while Twitter was alive with breaking news about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, it was almost invisible on Facebook. There, it was all Ice Bucket Challenge jollies.
"In a sense, Facebook has become like a digital version of a newspaper, an information gatekeeper that dispenses the news it believes users or readers need to know, rather than allowing those readers to decide for themselves. Instead of a team of little-known editors who decide which uprisings to pay attention to and which to ignore, Facebook uses an algorithm whose inner-workings are a mystery. Theoretically, the newsfeed ranking is determined according to the desires of its users, but there's no real way to confirm that this is true."
Twitter's management does face a challenge. Pray they don't decide that it's become necessary to destroy Twitter to save it. We don't need another Facebook.