Twitter has introduced an option for users to see the best tweets at the top of their timeline, as opposed to a pure reverse-chronological sort. When this feature is enabled, users accessing their account will see anywhere from 5 to 60 tweets (depending on how long they’ve been away) placed at the top of their timeline on the basis of a variety of factors. There’s a common misconception that this is a major departure from Twitter’s user experience to-date. In fact, this new algorithmic timeline builds on Twitter’s success with its previous “While you were away” experiment, which surfaced the most relevant content at the top of the feed.
For brands active on Twitter, this is a beneficial change. On the organic side, Twitter’s early testing of the algorithmic timeline feature indicates that brand engagement tends to increase while not diminishing organic reach – and this increase in engagement extends to live events. Unlike Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, Twitter’s algorithmic timeline will treat tweets from brands, celebrities, and users equally – the evaluation of tweet quality is consistent across account types.
The move to an algorithmic timeline is also yielding improvements on the paid media side: in a departure from the previous “While you were away” feature, Twitter will sell ad slots interspersed with these algorithmically ordered tweets at the top of the timeline. This means that advertisers have a better chance of appearing in the context of tweets that users are excited to see. In short, the algorithmic timeline is the rare change that is positive for advertisers, users, and Twitter alike.
The origins of this change date back to 2006. That was the year of Twitter’s founding, as well as the year that Facebook introduced its newsfeed product. Put another way, 2006 was the year of the feed for US social networks. But Facebook and Twitter chose different paths: Facebook opted to develop a newsfeed that used an algorithm to rank the stories displayed in its timeline, while Twitter implemented a simple reverse-chronological sort for its feed.
As commentator Ben Thompson recently documented, there is a case to be made that this one choice more than any other is responsible for the divergence of Facebook and Twitter’s growth paths over the past decade. While many Twitter users enjoy the straightforward logic behind the classic reverse-chronological feed, the weight of evidence and the attention scarcity in our information-abundant era point in the opposite direction. Or, as Bret Taylor, ex-CTO of Facebook, recently put it:
Twitter’s product leadership has been aware of this issue for years, which led them to introduce the “While you were away” feature to iOS devices in January 2015. This feature was a way for Twitter to dip a toe in the water of the algorithmic feed – by clearly designating that the section was not reverse-chronologically ordered and keeping it ad-free, Twitter could get a clear read on user reaction to the feature. It also avoided upsetting its most avid and heavily active users.
In the following months, “While you were away” was progressively rolled out to Android devices and the web interface. As of May 11, 2015, all Twitter users across all platforms had the feature. Thinking about it this way, Twitter has had an algorithmic timeline (of a sort) for a significant time predating this most recent update. Now, after spending 2015 testing the feature, Twitter is ready to integrate the algorithmic ranking function into the core feed experience.
How It Works
Twitter’s new algorithmic timeline takes a variety of factors into account when determining which tweets are suitable for display to users at the top of the timeline:
- Similarity to tweets user has interacted with
- Engagement with tweet by similar users
- Relevance of content to user’s interests
- Relevance of content to user’s network
Unlike Facebook, which attracted a great deal of controversy in 2012 when it began treating content from People and Pages differently in its newsfeed algorithm (veterans of the field may recall “the death of organic reach”) Twitter is taking an impartial path: all organic content from all account types, including brands, is evaluated along the same set of rules. That’s what allows the lift for engagement to span all types of publishers: the selection of content is based purely on content quality and relevance.
In the sole advertising-related departure from the “While you were away” feature, ad slots will be made available interspersed with organic content in the new algorithmic timeline. There are no changes, however, to the Twitter ad auction. Advertisers will find that the same targeting and bidding strategies that yielded success in the past will continue to be effective as the new algorithmic timeline rolls out across the platform.
Resolution Media takes an entirely positive view of these changes. Resolution Chief Strategy Officer George Manas was recently featured on the Twitter blog where he said “This update is a clear way to draw out the most relevant content on an individual basis while maintaining Twitter’s core strength of being live. We’re incredibly excited by the opportunity this presents for all the brands we partner with.”
By maintaining stability in the ad auction and ad formats, Twitter is keeping the parts of the platform that work best for advertisers. By allowing users the flexibility to retain the traditional reverse-chronological feed if they so choose, Twitter is keeping the parts of the platform that its most devoted users love. And by keeping its algorithm neutral with respect to content source, Twitter is ensuring that these changes don’t hurt publishers that rely on the platform.
Twitter’s move to an algorithmic feed is a welcome change. Despite what the folks writing with the #RIPTwitter hashtag would have you believe, de-emphasizing the reverse-chronological feed does not mean Twitter is turning into Facebook – at least not any more than Facebook’s adoption of the newsfeed six months after Twitter’s founding meant that Facebook was turning into Twitter!
Instead, Twitter is assimilating a proven and highly successful model for feed-based content distribution while retaining the qualities that make it special. Fundamentally, what has always set Twitter apart is the character of its network. While Facebook is built atop existing and symmetrical real-world networks of friends, family and colleagues, Twitter’s heart is its asymmetrical follower-based networks. Or, to put it more succinctly, here is Mr. Taylor again:
 It’s hard to believe, but yes, for the first two years of Facebook’s life there was no feed!