Crossing The Streams

This is how Twitter is starting to fundamentally redefine itself

August 18, 2014
Obsession
Design
August 18, 2014

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo promised many product “experiments” on the company’s most recent earnings call, and the company has started to deliver: Many users are starting to notice tweets that don’t normally belong in their feeds. This is a significant shift in how Twitter works—and how it might work in the future.

Twitter’s summer experiments

Here, for example, is a tweet I saw in my timeline this weekend. It was favorited—not retweeted—by Costolo himself, whom I follow. I would not have seen this tweet if not for the new experiment. (And I had just favorited one of his tweets. Coincidence?)

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Twitter inline fave tweet

Here’s another one, spotted by Hunter Walk, a startup investor. In this case, Twitter inserted a tweet with news value—but from an account he doesn’t follow—in his timeline, labeled as being “From Twitter.”

A fundamentally different Twitter

While Twitter has added many features over the years, its basic definition has remained the same: A feed of items—140 characters or shorter—transmitted by people you have manually chosen to follow. Twitter later added the retweet, and it also allowed advertisers to insert items into your stream for money. Still, it’s your feed.

This automatic insertion of new tweets into your feed, however, represents a fundamental shift in how Twitter works. Removing some control could be a good thing—the best tweets you’re not seeing are probably more interesting than many of the ones you can see. (Notably, this algorithmic filtering seems to have worked well for Facebook, which has an active user base almost five times the size of Twitter’s.) But it’s still a shift.

What’s next?

In the meantime, expect many more experiments. Some will stick, like last fall’s test with in-stream photo previews. And others won’t, depending on how people react to them. In this case, we imagine Twitter would measure whether these newly inserted tweets garner higher or lower engagement in the form of retweets or favorites, whether they lead people to follow (or block!) the accounts, whether they lead people to tap links or hashtags, or if people use Twitter any more (or less) with new things in their timelines.

The bottom line is that Twitter needs to keep growing. The simple stream of tweets has served it well so far, and preservationists will always argue against change. But if additions like these—or even more significant ones, like auto-following newly popular accounts, resurfacing earlier conversations, or more elaborate features around global events, like this summer’s World Cup—could make Twitter useful to billions of potential users, it will be worth rewriting Twitter’s basic rules.

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