Let’s start with a bit of context. There are two ways to follow Twitter: the traditional one, in which we see all the tweets from the accounts we follow as they are published, and the one the platform calls “home”, in which its algorithm also shows us popular tweets that are supposed to interest us, as they are related to content that we like and with accounts that we follow. To switch between one view and another, you have to click on the star that appears at the top of the web or the app.
Twitter prefers that we use the “home” version. That is why he calls it that, so that we believe that it is normal to start there. And that’s why when we spend a few days without opening the web or the app, it changes to this version.
And now, the new, although luckily it came to nothing: Twitter announced a change in its app a few days ago: the featured tweets (“start”) and those ordered chronologically would be in two different tabs. The featured one would appear first by default.
The change was not well received: among the responses to the Twitter announcement, there were comments that bordered on desperation (“not again”) to, directly, insults. This Monday, Twitter published that it was giving up the idea, after verifying that many of its users prefer the chronological order, the one of a lifetime, the one that allows, for example, to follow events and news live without sneaking in tweets from ago 17 hours.
Twitter has quickly repented. It could have taken six years, like Instagram: the platform announced in January that throughout the first half of 2022 it will allow a return to chronological order. But he had been refusing since 2016 to offer this possibility.
We heard you –– some of you always want to see latest Tweets first. We’ve switched the timeline back and removed the tabbed experience for now while we explore other options. https://t.co/euVcPr9ij6
—TwitterSupport (@TwitterSupport) March 14, 2022
Transparency and control
And why does Twitter want us to see the “featured” tweets first? For the same reason that Instagram, Facebook and TikTok show by default the content that their algorithm decides: because it works and helps let’s spend more time on the platform.
These algorithms are powerful, as anyone who has opened the “For You” tab on TikTok knows. And also dangerous: continuing with TikTok, after analyzing an internal platform document, an algorithm expert explained to New York Times that “in a few hours”, the platform can identify all kinds of personal information, from musical tastes to depression, through a possible drug addiction. The goal: to offer more videos in the “For You” tab and to make it even more difficult to close the app.
The platforms want catch our attention without seeming to care that it is at the cost of giving presence to controversial content, fake news and conspiracy theories. And I use the verb “seem” because one of the main problems with algorithms is that they are opaque: we hardly know anything about how they decide what we are going to see and what not, apart from the four obvious things mentioned or the advice that the networks give to influencer, companies and media so that their content is not lost.
Another problem is the lack of control, as Twitter product manager Jay Sullivan explained. in a thread in which he discussed the decision to roll back his new design: “People want — they deserve — transparency about why they see the content they see, and more control over this content.” This control could happen by deactivating the algorithm when we want, but also by being able to expressly decide if we want to see more or fewer publications from the media or from our friends, and that these decisions do not depend only on the interests of the company.
In this case, your feedback is especially important, as people want – and deserve – transparency about why they see the content they see, and more control over it.
— Jay Sullivan (@jaysullivan) March 14, 2022
A good solution, at least once in a while
It should be noted that algorithms are sometimes useful. For example, on Facebook we may want to keep in touch with those friends from school that we add in a fit of nostalgia. But perhaps we don’t want to read your views on the Ukraine war. The problem is not so much that the platforms select content as that we neither know how they do it nor can we easily control this process. Continuing with the example, more than once the publications of those friends have disappeared without us knowing why and without warning.
Even in a network like Twitter the algorithmic order can be useful for many. This network requires taking the time to seek out people whose opinions, ideas, or jokes interest us or whose judgment we trust. Once we have managed to care for and prune a selection that at least it doesn’t scare us, the last thing we want is for the application to show us absurd tweets from people we don’t know. But surely many other users do not want to spend so much time on it and prefer to have those popular tweets at hand to pass the time waiting for the bus or having a coffee.
In any case, Twitter has done well by backing down and maintaining the same options that it had until now. Although there is no need to claim victory: let us remember that the company said in its tweet that it was “exploring other options”. If we pay attention to what Shoshana Zuboff writes in The era of surveillance capitalism, tech companies just cancel their plans to reintroduce them after a while with a minimal layer of makeup.
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