A post we published at Gigaom on Thursday morning seems to have triggered a kind of flash fire in the Twitter-sphere. The post referred to some recent comments from CFO Anthony Noto that suggested algorithmic filtering of some kind — similar to what Facebook does — is likely coming to [company]Twitter[/company]. My @ replies feed quickly turned into a maelstrom of disgust at the idea (interrupted by the occasional supportive tweet) and so I’ve collected some of them below, and others in a Storify collection. There’s also a poll so you can tell us what you think.
Just to recap, Noto said at a financial conference on Wednesday — as reported by the Wall Street Journal — that the standard reverse-chronological order of the Twitter was “not the most relevant experience for a user,” since it might mean that relevant or interesting tweets would be missed. Putting that content in front of them regardless of when it was posted, he said, “is a way to organize that content better.”
I took that to mean that algorithmic filtering or non-chronological rejigging of the Twitter timeline was probably coming soon — something that others have also said recently, including TechCrunch — even though many users have made it clear that they don’t like algorithmic filtering, and that the non-filtered nature of Twitter is one of the main reasons they use that network instead of Facebook. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said my interpretation was “an absurd synthesis” of what Noto said, but he also didn’t deny that filtering is coming.
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Some responses to the post pointed out that filtering could occur under a revamped “Discover” tab, or with a toggle that would allow users to switch their default view between a filtered or unfiltered stream. But others pointed out that Facebook has such a toggle between relevance and chronological, and many users are reportedly unaware that their newsfeed is even filtered in the first place — so they never make use of that setting. As I tried to point out, the devil is in the defaults that any social service or platform provides to you, and how it is described.
Imagine what a Twitter-curated timeline would have looked like during Ferguson. Imagine the voices not deemed "relevant" by an algorithm.
— Heather McLendon (@hemclendon) September 4, 2014
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has written about the difference between the algorithmic nature of Facebook’s feed and Twitter’s unfiltered experience in the context of the news from Ferguson, said in a follow-up post on Medium that she values the raw nature of the Twitter stream not just because it’s chronological but because it is effectively filtered by human beings rather than algorithms — and algorithms might miss things of value, including posts from people or sources they don’t see as important enough to highlight. Others made the same point:
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A number of users noted that one of the main benefits of Twitter is that they get to control what they see by choosing whom to follow, and that giving up any of that control wasn’t something they wanted to consider. Even if Twitter does provide filtering in a non-default tab, or allows for an opt-out, or is simply talking about experimenting with more algorithm-driven relevance features, it’s quite clear that for many devoted users, tampering with their following list or stream is like touching the third rail of a subway track. Here are some more responses:
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Twitter is already a filtered network, except you choose humans you like to do the filtering and not some anonymous guys in San Francisco.
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) September 4, 2014
— Charles Poynton, PhD (@momaku) September 4, 2014
If Twitter chooses which idiots I see in my stream, then I've wasted half a decade carefully selecting those idiots myself.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) September 4, 2014
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2010: Twitter is screwed unless it fixes its signal-to-noise challenge. 2014: Twitter is screwed if it fixes its signal-to-noise problem.
— Matt Graves (@mgrooves) September 4, 2014
The likely scenario: 1. Mumbo jumbo re: users have a choice, 2. furious debate, 3. default is filtered, 4. Twitter becomes celebrity fluff.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) September 4, 2014
As I mentioned above, I’ve collected those and others in a Storify module — including a number of positive comments from users who feel that algorithmic filtering would be helpful, especially for new users, and others who feel that the whole thing is a storm in a teapot and no one really cares whether their feed is filtered or not. And here’s the poll:
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Eric Crama