The ‘Algorithmic Timeline’ Will Make Twitter More Like Facebook. That’s a Good Thing.

Squawk on the Street
Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter. Photo: CNBC/Getty Images

The algorithm is coming. On Friday night, BuzzFeed reported that “as soon as next week” Twitter would be introducing an “algorithmic timeline,” which would “reorder tweets based on what Twitter’s algorithm thinks people most want to see,” unlike the current timeline, which is arranged in reverse chronological order.

The new algorithmic timeline will be a relatively small change, as the Verge has reported — and, importantly, you can opt out. But the backlash was, as usual, swift and self-righteous (Twitter, having developed the world’s greatest platform for complaint, is also its own favorite target). #RIPTwitter began to trend. Rob Lowe weighed in. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was forced to address the story in a particularly uninspiring set of tweets assuring users that “[w]e never planned to reorder timelines next week.” Seemingly placated, Twitter went back to screencapping Beyoncé dual-wielding middle fingers.

The reasons for switching to — or adding — an algorithmic timeline are obvious. Twitter can be a forbidding place, visually and culturally, and a smartly tuned sorting system could make it more welcoming to both new and infrequent users. And, yes, to advertisers. Explaining to advertisers that your social network has an algorithmic feed “like Facebook’s” is likely to get them to open their wallets much more quickly.

Of course, “like Facebook” is exactly what Twitter’s power users are afraid of hearing. “Hey, @Twitter,” read one widely circulated Tweet (from an, uh, Avengers fan account), “there is a reason why we are here and not on Facebook. Do not have that new algorithm.” “The reason,” of course, is that Facebook sucks. This is the standard line: It’s safer, dumber, more corporate; its algorithmic newsfeed is spoon-feeding you garbage. Twitter, on the other hand, is open, public, universal, always available.

I’m sympathetic to this sense of Twitter as a sort of free informational zone, one of those places of pure internet where it can feel like galaxies of ideas are at your fingertips. I spent hours a day on Twitter for years; at its peak, it felt like the most fresh and invigorating place online, in part because of the sheer volume of useful or entertaining information it contained. At the same time I found Facebook nearly unusable, lousy with noise, always just a click away from a forgotten and disliked high-school classmate or relative.

But the thing is. And I never thought I would say this: Lately I’ve been spending a lot more time on Facebook than on Twitter. In fact, Facebook has, lately, seemed, actually, kind of … fun. I see funny videos and images on it, not just the Hallmark glurge that felt inescapable a few years ago, and I often see them there first, before Twitter. I participate in communities that range from the entertainingly weird to genuinely edifying. I have discussions — political discussions, even! — that are sharp and satisfying and only rarely party-crashed by the stupid or malevolent.

Twitter, on the other hand, is … Twitter. It’s not just that it’s no longer fresh or invigorating or, as Josh Topolsky put it at The New Yorker, “necessary,” it’s that it lately feels like it’s seething with ill will and miscommunication and argument. This is not just a complaint about the rise of Gamergate and its associated reactionary and white-supremacist comrades-in-tweet, though they’re part of it. Even the smartest communities of journalists and activists and trolls feel stale and mechanical, trapped in cycles of self-promotion and ideological battle. Three weeks spent reading people I generally like and respect argue disingenuously on Twitter about “Berniebros” has made me, I think, actively stupider. That, in the midst of a presidential election, Twitter is unbearable and Facebook is pleasurable is remarkable, given that even just two years ago their positions would’ve been reversed.

Could algorithmic sorting fix this? I think, actually … maybe. Twitter’s great problem over the last two or more years is that the culture and features that attract its power users also enable its worst trolls and abusers. A social network with public accounts, frictionless republishing, and direct communication sounds fantastic but it also directly creates a system where everyone is just a retweet and miscommunication away from mentions hell. Of course a service that made it easy to hound Scott Baio into a spitting rage over diaper fetishism can be used for much less funny, and much more troubling, kinds of trolling.

But maybe more directly: A service where everything is nakedly public and available all the time breeds a culture of antagonism and entitlement. Low-level harassment is often driven by the sense that a given user “owes” her antagonist a response. Fusion editor Alexis Madrigal took to Twitter on Saturday worried about the service’s apparent slow death and the possibility that it might not become the promised “noosphere,” by which he means a “real time network of minds.” My inclination is to say: Good. I’m not sure that the world needs one. Not all content is intended for everyone; not all content needs to be accessible to everyone. You can argue that Twitter should be the place where it is — “Twitter is public” is the unimpeachably true Big Dogs–style slogan here — but that dooms Twitter to unpopularity. Who would go to a bar where every conversation you have is immediately crashed by rude and disagreeable interlocutors — or, worse, broadcast on television?

Asking an algorithm alone to change Twitter’s aggressive culture is probably too much. But I think reordering the timeline could at least push Twitter closer to the crowded-bar ideal of social media, where conversations are public and somewhat available to civil and interested strangers, but not quite so exposed or easily reproducible.

It’s true that it’s unsettling to take a public, openly available network, and add a new and opaque formula for sorting. I tend to have a heighten-the-contradictions feeling about this: If we wanted a public, openly available network for information, we shouldn’t have given the contract to a corporation that’s freely available to change its terms at any time. Twitter is not a public utility. An algorithm, at least, makes the relationship between customer and service more clear.

Plus, I don’t think the algorithm is really going to hide anything from us the way people fear. For the last several months, my favorite new Twitter feature — sorry, Moments — is “While you were away,” a small package of tweets inserted at the top of my feed when I open the website or the app after several hours away. Unlike the enticement emails Twitter sends to users who haven’t logged on in a while, which tend to be filled with hugely popular tweets and images from celebrities and news organizations, the tweets delivered to me in “While you were away” are small and ordinary and rarely blockbusters by Twitter’s metrics — they’re one-liners and observations and photos tweeted out by the friends and colleagues whose Twitter accounts I regularly check and interact with.

According to the Verge, the “While you were away” algorithm will be the basis of the new algorithmic timeline. I have to say: It works well for me. It never shows me tweets I’ve seen and only rarely does it show me tweets I don’t care about. Maybe most important, it doesn’t show me tweets from the people or institutions I don’t care about — the accounts I follow because of the requirements of my job, or my desire to understand the contexts of Twitter. It treats Twitter not as a public space — a pure news feed or informational “noosphere” — but as a semi-private one, geared to me, like a social network. As such it’s a small reminder that Twitter can be engaging as well as obligating, that there is a reason to use and enjoy the service beyond compulsion and duty. It holds my attention and wins my affection in a way that my regular, reverse-chronological timeline rarely does, and I expect “algorithmic Twitter” will do more or less the same thing. And if it doesn’t, there’s always Facebook.