After a couple of quarters that had analysts and investors concerned about its growth potential, Twitter managed to turn in a fairly strong performance in the most recent quarter — with more than 120-percent growth in revenue. Some power Twitter users, however, were more interested in something Twitter CEO Dick Costolo mentioned during the conference call: namely, the idea that the company might introduce an algorithmically-filtered feed like Facebook’s.
What Costolo actually said was he “isn’t ruling out” an algorithmic approach — and he also said the company is considering ways of “surfacing the kinds of great conversations that pop up in peoples’ timelines.” That doesn’t mean Twitter is suddenly going to convert its stream into a Facebook-style curated feed, but it was enough to make some users nervous, especially those who have come to dislike the Facebook experience because the social network keeps tweaking its algorithm.
Facebook has managed its newsfeed this way from the beginning, but it seems to have gotten more irritating for some, especially since the changes seem to be designed to appeal to advertisers rather than actual users — and because some say they have lost much of the reach they used to have (a problem Facebook is happy to solve if you pay to promote your content). Is that the kind of future that Twitter has in mind? And will it ruin the experience?
When I asked the question (on Twitter, naturally) after the company’s earnings report, a number of users said they would either quit the service altogether or dramatically scale back their usage if Twitter implemented something like the Facebook newsfeed, with a black-box algorithm determining what they saw or didn’t see. Several said that a big part of the appeal of Twitter was that it showed them everything their friends and social connections posted — even if the volume of those posts was sometimes overwhelming.
Just because it implements some kind of algorithmic curation or filtering doesn’t mean Twitter is going to turn into Facebook overnight, of course. The company might confine that kind of approach to an updated or improved version of the “Discover” tab — which is designed to appeal to new users and increase engagement, but so far doesn’t seem to have had much impact. Or it might use algorithms in order to create beginner streams for new users, as a way of helping with “on-boarding,” while allowing existing users to remain unaffected.
The impetus for using algorithms is fairly obvious: while its user-growth and engagement numbers may have assuaged investors’ concerns for the most recent quarter, Twitter is still behind some of the targets that Costolo has reportedly set in the past — including the one where he said the network would have 400 million users by the end of last year (it has about 250 million now). And if it is ever going to reach those levels, it’s going to have to make the service a lot more intuitive and a lot less work. Algorithms are one way of doing that, because they do the heavy lifting, instead of forcing users to spend time pruning their streams.
As Facebook has shown, however, the algorithm is a double-edged sword: for every new user it appeals to, it is going to irritate — and potentially drive away — some indeterminate number of existing users. And as Twitter itself has acknowledged, those users are the ones who create and post the majority of the content that spurs engagement by the rest of the network. Pissing them off could leave Twitter with nothing but a resting place next to MySpace in the social networking Hall of Shame.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / rvlsoft