If a chicken somewhere ever became convinced that the sky was falling, we would hear about it on Twitter first.
On Twitter, news spreads like wildfire, unfiltered, from the ground up. In fact, sometimes impatient wildfires get on Twitter in order to speed the process along.
That is one of the advantages this social media network offers — that and “followers,” which are usually ascribed to dangerous cultists.
So it is no wonder that an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Twitter’s CFO sent the entire bloc of Twitter-crazed-power-users (not a great band name) into a panic. We summoned up Henny Penny and Cocky Locky and the whole unfortunately rhyme-named gang and went marching off to see the king.
But, as someone wise once said, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
It may be that Twitter is not on a path to changing for the worse. But it certainly sounds that way.
The essence of Twitter is that you get to curate your own feed: You follow those who interest you, you read what they tweet and retweet and see what they favorite, and for everything else, there are trending topics. You hear about things from people, not algorithms: A story makes its way into your feed because your friends or colleagues or favored Internet strangers or Matthew Gray Gubler, whom you once followed on a whim, found it interesting and decided to pass it along.
Facebook is not like this. What you see on Facebook, by default, gets tweaked and altered by algorithms that decide what you would Like and Engage with. And this became pretty clearly apparent during the events in Ferguson, Mo., when Twitter overflowed with news and Facebook kept rambling on about the Ice Bucket Challenge.
The interview was worrisome in several ways.
The article notes:
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.”
True, the reverse chronological timeline may not be “the most relevant experience for a user,” but this democratic organization of content, centered around people, not algorithms, is crucial.
I hate it when my online feeds try to show me content that is “relevant to me.” I don’t want content that I already know is relevant to me. I want the things I don’t already know I want — the kind of mouth-to-mouth information that Twitter is known for. Filtered feeds that cut through the “noise”? The value of Twitter is that it doesn’t filter. It lets you decide what’s noise and what’s signal for yourself.
“We’re going to do all of these methodically. We test and make sure we understand what the implications are,” he said. “Individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm.”
Sure, we won’t just “wake up one day.” But whether it happens one day when we wake up or slowly over a period of years, it’s still not a good development. At all. Maybe we’ll be able to opt out. But it would still be a major shift.
We’re used to this sort of thing from Facebook — changing everything we knew and loved, willy-nilly, with little notice, or altering our feeds for Sinister Social Experiments. We are, after all, not the consumer. We’re the product.
And that’s true of Twitter, too. We’d just forgotten.