This afternoon, thanks to a post by GigaOm's Mathew Ingram, this headline started floating around in media spheres on the internet:
A quick game of media Twitter telephone ensued, which led, as these things often do, to the end of the road for Twitter. Here's media pundit and professor Jay Rosen:
...which led to this:
Seems pretty alarmist to me! So maybe let's take a few steps back, first.
Ingram's piece hinges on a quote from Twitter's CFO, Anthony Noto, in a Wall Street Journal article from this morning. Ingram uses it to suggest that Twitter's executives and product lead are toying with the idea of implementing an algorithmically driven Twitter feed. Here's the bit Ingram used from the Journal's Yoree Koh:
Twitter's timeline is organized in reverse chronological order… 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.'
While Ingram never explicitly suggests that Twitter will swap algorithms for the raw news feed, the overarching tone suggests that Twitter is about to "change the nature of the service dramatically."
It's a compelling conclusion to draw and one that's at the forefront of a lot of media pundit minds after breaking news events in places like Ferguson showcased the stark difference between a filtered and unfiltered social news stream.
But to read the original Wall Street Journal article suggests something less dramatic. First, Noto appears to be addressing the site's search discovery features as well as the decision to pull favorites from users you don't follow into users' Twitter's timelines. Nowhere in the piece does Noto explicitly reference a full-scale change of the way the timeline works. He even goes as far as to say further down in the article that "individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm." Noto appears to be answering for the controversial decision to add slight tweaks to the timeline with unsolicited content, rather than unveiling some master vision of the future.
And then, of course, there's the matter that Noto's quote in question is actually dead-on. Twitter's reverse chronological timeline isn't the most relevant experience for the average user. Good tweets do get buried. And Twitter's onboarding process for new users — which was recently given a facelift — is still a bit murky.
For average Twitter users, an algorithmic feed might be just the incentive to head to Twitter for breaking news like so many journalists and news fiends. Given the newsgathering makeup of the social network, the content is already there. And this would certainly help expose a great number of tweets to a larger audience.
Of course this is a terrifying prospect for Twitter's most obsessive crowd. The ones who live on Twitter. And for good reason! For plenty of journalists Twitter is a key tool in their day to day work and, for some, an integral platform in advancing their careers. But there's nothing in Noto's comments to suggest that this incarnation of Twitter — the core component of the social network that's led to the platform's meteoric rise, IPO, and global success — can't co-exist with an algorithmically-driven timeline.
At the risk of giving Twitter too much credit, it seems preposterous that the company's executives and product team would toss out the very core of the site and almost maliciously alienate its most ardent supporters and users. Sure, there's wide concerns that Twitter's product team doesn't have the same relationship to the product as most intense newsgatherers, but it seems odd that the company, which employs a Head of News executive and frequently touts the importance of the raw feed during live events, would be clueless as to the platform's standing in the news community.
Twitter will change. It will need to evolve and include more casual users if it wants to grow considerably (and not just modestly as it has in the past few quarters). Those changes will be aimed at a group with far different needs than the 'power users.' But it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Twitter's most vocal supporters almost universally dislike changes to the platform, so why not freeze the news obsessives Twitter in time, while working on building a Twitter for the other 80 percent of active users? The obsessives, who create the vast majority of the content, can keep the old way, while a new audience will finally have the tools to meet the best of that content on the platform.
What will Twitter look like in two years? Probably a lot less like itself. But I'm willing to be there'll be room for both sides.
Twitter's CEO, Dick Costolo appears to agree:
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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