Photo via Flickr user Filippo Minelli
If you spend a lot of time on Twitter.com, a website that's sort of like a giant room where everyone shouts conversation fragments towards the ceiling, you’ve probably already come across the news that the social network is about to become more like Facebook. The site will soon roll out features that will “separate the interesting and timely tweets from the noise,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. This means that instead of a firehose of 140-character jokes, news items, mini-#thinkpieces, general complaints, links, and incredibly petty fights delivered in reverse chronological order, users will see a selection of tweets that has been filtered for their convenience and pleasure by a friendly algorithm.
Regular users hate hate HATE this, and they’re complaining, naturally, by tweeting:
To understand why people are filled with such anger, you need to understand why they (well, really we, since I'm one of those lunks who spends too much on the site) like Twitter so much. We might as well start by admitting that it is incredibly unfriendly for new users. When you sign up you don't get to see anything until you follow some people, and it takes you a while to realize that Twitter isn't one big community, it's hundreds or thousands of little overlapping communities that are all talking within themselves, making in-jokes, and subtweeting their antagonists. It's also a place where everything is on the same level – celebrity tweets, people bitching about airlines, insane novels about Homer Simpson smoking marijuana in Iraq. You can curate this stuff by sorting your follows into lists, or you can just let it all wash over you, trusting that if something interesting or important is happening on the internet, Twitter will naturally put it front and centre.
The resulting diversity of shit you can look at by scanning Twitter stands in stark contrast to Facebook, where a mysterious algorithm picks and chooses which of your friends' statuses appear on your News Feed, resulting in ads showing up under wedding and birth announcements from people you met years ago and have since forgotten about. More annoyingly, your News Feed often seems to pick items to display based on how many likes they're getting, meaning that you get shown a bunch of junky videos that You Just Can't Believe and links to heartstring-jerking stories that Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.
Twitter's fans, myself included, love that it doesn't hold your hand and show you things it suspects you'll be interested in. The act of sorting through a messy fountain of information and ideas is stimulating in and of itself, and you never know when you'll come across something that's fascinating but that you wouldn't have stumbled on except for a stray retweet you happened to click. Facebook's News Feed might be an easy way to check out your friends' social lives and keep up, in a vague way, with the biggest stories of the day, but it can rapidly become predictable and stale.
It's easy to dismiss complaints about social media sites as the grumblings of a few angry people who should probably unplug and go outside and/or read a book, but there are precious few places left on the internet where our experience isn't controlled by the invisible hand of an algorithm. Facebook, which provides so much traffic to sites like the one you're reading right now that minor changes in its News Feed can cause readership to drop drastically, obviously curates everything it shows you. But Google search results are also filtered, with similar consequences – earlier this year the online community MetaFilter had to lay some of its moderators off after a change in how the search powerhouse indexes hits sank their traffic. The internet you see is increasingly controlled by a few massive corporations, and they've been exerting themselves more and more lately, as the members of the Free Syrian Army – whose Facebook pages were taken down this year – could tell you. (Occasionally, this power is used for good; Facebook recently decided to crack down on sites that publish fake "news" stories and profit from the traffic.)
The change for Twitter seems pretty clearly motivated by the site's need to become more attractive to casual users, making it in turn more attractive to advertisers. It's a tweak that won't matter to those who aren't hardcore tweeters, and many people will surely like the new version of the site. If Twitter becomes more like Facebook, though, it'll inevitably get less weird as it grows friendlier and more welcoming – and that means another bubble of the web's strangeness will have been smoothed out by the forces of homogenization (and capitalism). The new Twitter will probably make more money for everyone. Unfortunately, it will look just like the rest of the internet.
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