This weekend, in keeping with its rich tradition of constantly testing new features inside select groups, Twitter rolled out an experimental feature that inserts tweets into your stream that have been favorited by people you follow. As is the case whenever a social network makes a broad change, users are none too pleased.
And there’s definitely reason to be frustrated. Twitter devotees are wildly protective of their feeds, which are often carefully manicured. For those who use Twitter obsessively in their lines of work, or already suffer from cluttered feeds, the introduction of tweets they didn’t ask for feels more like a bug than a feature.
But there’s a good case to be made that adding the favs of those you follow into your timeline is a refreshing and exciting prospect that, if executed properly, could change the way you use the social network. Here’s why I think you should be excited:
1. It’s a new perspective.
In practice, this experiment is a lot like adding a very lightweight version of the site’s Activity Feed (which allows you to view your network exclusively through the interactions of the accounts you follow) into your timeline.
As I’ve written about previously, the Activity Feed offers a new angle from which to view Twitter, giving you the chance to step outside of your feed and perhaps surface users and links you would have otherwise never seen. This is a good thing! Even if you obsessively curate and manicure your follows list, it’s easy to get stuck in ruts on Twitter following and interacting with the same people. As a journalist, it’s an opportunity to maybe catch an obscure link or find a user you thought you followed but don’t (I find this happens all the time). As a casual user, it’s maybe the best way to find real-live humans and official accounts that are contributing (sometimes valuably!) to Twitter, instead of the dud celebrity accounts that Twitter often foists onto new users. The Activity Feed is secretly one of the best recommendation engines on the internet, and the idea of Twitter featuring it prominently in some form is good news.
2. It’s voyeuristic!
Even though Twitter interactions are public, very few people outwardly perceive them that way. Over the years, favorites on Twitter have taken on a myriad of meanings, even prompting scientific studies. You can favorite to bookmark or favorite to hate something or to acknowledge that you’ve seen it. Favs can be a very tacit sign of an impending hire or a vague signal that two people are flirting. It can also mean nothing. Because people rarely think about others monitoring these actions, they’re great little signals that, while maybe unhelpful one by one, tell a larger, sometimes interesting story. At the very least, there’s kind of a perverse thrill in seeing something that feels like it’s private.
Over at Recode, Kurt Wagner expressed some concern over this, arguing that, “no matter why you fave a tweet, it may soon work more like an endorsement, surfacing that tweet for others you followed. For some, the experiment means they’ll need to re-evaluate how they use the service.” Wagner also quotes his colleague, Peter Kafka who said that “If they stick with this I will have to dump the ‘bookmarking fav’ and the ‘don’t want to say anything out loud fav’ and ‘sarcastic fav’”.
It’s an understandable concern, but one that feels somewhat outdated. Save for a few strict news organizations the ‘twitter action as endorsement’ idea is a tired remnant of a less savvy era of social media user. Twitter personalities, especially in the media world, often differ from the voice of one’s written work — in many cases its a way to inject a little personality. Kafka’s twitter persona is often sarcastic, so why can’t his favs be that way, too? And who cares if you telegraph what you’re saving to read for later?
In other cases, it can also help to expose less than admirable behavior. A close look at the New York Post’s official Twitter account shows a lot of questionable behavior, like the serial favoriting of some unsavory and even misogynistic tweets.
3. It’s a reminder of Twitter’s vibrancy.
The very nature of Twitter makes it susceptible to user fatigue. And one result of that fatigue, as suggested by The Atlantic’s Twitter eulogy earlier this year is to feel like the service has deadened a bit, even if it hasn’t. That the excitement and vibrancy of the service has given way to boring shouting, or little movement at all. Adding a few errant tweets into users’ feeds might not solve that, but it’s a step toward breaking that monotony.
4. Your feed doesn’t have to be sacred.
Your feed is your business and while you’re free to use it in literally any way you see fit, there’s a tendency to treat it as an untouchable zone. There’s obviously some logic to this (you spent a lot of time building it!) but it’s also a bit silly. With the exception of those who manage very strict accounts for things like breaking news, there’s no reason you can’t play around a little. Unfollow everyone! Or maybe just unfollow all men! Experiment with a lightning fast feed jammed with diverse accounts or trim all the fat and slow it to a trickle. Maybe what you thought was perfect is actually less perfect than you thought. Perhaps in the process you’ll learn something about how you were using Twitter before. The stakes (for almost everyone) are extremely low!
Perhaps that’s the most important lesson of this and all other Twitter experiments. These social networks are extremely powerful and, as we’re seeing over the past ten days in Ferguson, have the ability to literally help create and sustain movements and direct media coverage. But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. And who knows? This feature may never reach most users, but it’s proof the company is open to changing things up. Maybe you should be, too.