Twitter's Timeline

One of the main reasons why I enjoy Twitter far more than Google+ or Facebook is the way the timeline works there. The only one who is responsible for what gets in there is me by following people who post content I want to have in there. And the order is only determined by when they make such a post. No curation, no filtering, no re-ordering based on my previous likes.

Sadly, this hasn’t been completely true for a really long time now with the introduction of “Promoted tweets” back in 2010.

In this example I got a post by @teespring in my timeline. I don’t have anything against that company but I don’t follow them either, so the only way that tweet should have made it into my timeline was by someone I follow retweeting that post. Promoted tweets are nothing more than targeted ads. The good thing about them is that they are also marked as such by the rather prominent “Promoted” label.

Also, these ads are not exposed through the API within your actual timeline there so people using tools like Tweetbot et al. don’t get them. This, on the other hand, also lead Twitter to start controlling their app ecosystem more tightly.

Recently Twitter also started injecting other content into your timeline that is not explicitly marked as such but deemed “relevant” by the service. To quote their help page on this:

Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.

Luckily, I haven’t experienced that yet probably mostly because I don’t use neither nor the official client for Android and iOS. I tried the Android app again to see how much unwanted content I would get but so far I only saw one promoted tweet, so perhaps I’m lucky and this change has already been disabled again or I’m simply not in one of the test-groups here.

While I absolutely get why promoted tweets might be a good thing for Twitter as a company, I don’t yet understand the advantage of these additional so-called “relevant” tweets. It might be interesting for new users but there Twitter probably doesn’t have a large enough dataset to recommend actual relevant content. Long-time users, on the other hand, are most likely annoyed by content they didn’t “subscribe to” because they would have otherwise already followed the respective accounts.

Turning Twitter into a news-service like that would fundamentally change what that service actually is. Having such features is great for new users, but without having a way to opt-out of them, Twitter loses what makes it different from other mainstream services like Facebook. That you have to curate your stream here by yourself is a good thing. That I’m not spammed with content about the latest pop-star is a good thing.

In the end I hope that this is just another of Twitter’s experiments that doesn’t leave that stage. If I wanted something like that, I probably wouldn’t be using Twitter. Please! Let me curate my own timeline and don’t change the semantics of existing features! At least add some way to opt-out of something that is not absolutely essential to your financial survival…