After a few weeks of traveling and talking to people with varying expertise with social media, I’ve been thinking about the role of skill in navigating various social media feeds. Apparently Twitter has been thinking about the same things, with chief financial officer Anthony Noto telling the Wall Street Journal things that most Twitter users do not want to hear:
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.”
Anyone who has tried to find news has faced the dilemma of trying to sort out valuable information from “noise” – content that isn’t as valuable for us. We often think of these dilemma of “signal” and “noise” as Internet-specific, because the Internet makes it easier to produce your own content. In many ways, the Internet makes it easier to produce noise, and it’s a great compliment to say someone has a very high signal to noise ratio in their blog. But before we talk more about Twitter and algorithms, it’s important to remember that separating signals from noise is a universal part of searching for news. Here’s Kent Brockman, explaining before most viewers used the Internet:
Since it’s creation, Twitter has had a clear and absolutist stance on separating signals from noise. Twitter would display postings in strict chronological order. It would be up to individual users to follow people producing valuable content, unfollow those who produce noise, and search for new people to follow. Twitter requires skill and effort to get useful content. Anyone who has used Twitter knows this. Anyone who has tried Twitter and left the service, saying they don’t get it or don’t know what to do, has felt the same thing. As a result, Twitter has faced questions of whether it is growing “fast enough” ever since the company went public. As Mathew Ingram wrote on Gigaom at the end of July:
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 [Twitter CEO Dick] 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.
Instead of being agnostic and leaving it to users to sort through the noise, Twitter increasingly sees it as the company’s role to create an algorithm to help sort through the noise. Noto told the Journal that changes to users’ feeds would be gradual. “Individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm.”
Comparison to Facebook is inevitable at this point. Facebook has a much larger user base, and a much larger role for algorithms in determining what users see. Facebook concluded that doing things like moving popular posts back up to the top of users’ “News Feeds” would help increase the amount of time people spend on the site, among other changes. The basic philosophy with Facebook is to make it so users to not have to search to pull out useful or relevant content. They assume people would miss out if things were presented in chronological order, because people eventually get bored and stop scrolling.
The double-edged sword of Facebook’s low skill, algorithmic interface is that Facebook does not give any distinctive benefits to people who have skill at separating valuable information from noise. Facebook does not allow us to customize which topics we care about. People who hate sports can’t set Facebook to automatically hide all sports posts. We can’t automatically hide all baby pictures. Because many life events keep getting likes, I increasingly have to like and then hide Facebook postings to keep them from constantly resurfacing at the top of my “News Feed” like a horde of zombies! (Of course, when I click the hide button, Facebook’s menu for why I want to hide the post doesn’t include a way to complain that I’ve seen the post already and now I want new information.)
By restricting the control that users have over what appears in their “News Feed,” Facebook operates as a push medium in many ways, similar to TV. The algorithm puts a bunch of content in front of us, and we just scroll down. Maybe we click the like button. Maybe we open a link. But we don’t search through a series of Facebook pages, actively separating the important content from the junk. Facebook’s algorithms sort out what they consider “junk” for us, making it very difficult to see what got sorted out. As Zeynep Tufecki argued, reliance on Facebook’s algorithms for news could raise serious issues of net neutrality.
But even if Facebook isn’t actively favoring some issues instead of others, Facebook is still a terrible place to get news. Facebook’s algorithms are designed to keep the least common denominator user happy by giving them an easy to use interface that does not require skill. Look at the cute baby picture everybody likes – it’s so easy to click like and move on with our lives! These Facebook only users, by and large, do not want to exert effort to sort through the noise of the Internet. They are like people who would rather sit and watch Kent Brockman and his TV colleagues than open a newspaper or go to a news website and search through different stories for the most relevant information.
Twitter’s core user base is like newspaper readers of a prior generation. We prefer using our own skill to search for relevant information, because we can use our own judgment and preferences more effectively than an algorithm that often emphasizes the least common denominator. Twitter’s user base may be limited because the platform requires skill for users to navigate. Newspapers were limited after radio and TV, because they required more skill to navigate. Newspapers stuck to their niche, and they still haven’t died. Maybe Twitter shouldn’t abandon it’s niche to become Facebook lite?