Twitter messes with the newsfeed… and the Twitterati goes wild!

Recent tech reports say (I haven’t seen it in my timeline yet) that Twitter is testing out a new format in the newsfeed: it will show you tweets that someone you follow has favorited.  This is considered revolutionary because for the first time, tweets will appear in your timeline that are not from people you follow and are not sponsored tweets.

...and the crowd goes wild!

…and the crowd goes wild!

The headlines in the press aren’t positive. “Time Out: Twitter Is Officially Mucking With Your Timeline” and “Get used to tweets from people you don’t follow in your Twitter timeline. It’s an official feature.” Some are neutral: “Twitter now officially says your timeline is more than just tweets from people you follow.” The only positive headline I saw was “Your Twitter Favorite Button Just Got a Lot More Powerful.”

Beyond the headlines, the move is mostly hated by the techies I follow on Twitter. The unaltered and algorithm-less timeline is an extremely important and essential feature of Twitter, especially for its long-term, very engaged users.

The last part of the above sentence should give you a clue where I’m going with this post: that long-term, very-engaged are not all the users on Twitter. In fact, Twitter admitted earlier this year that 44% of users are not engaged at all, meaning that they have yet to tweet their first tweet. Analysts responded by saying that unless twitter solves the Engagement Problem, it is doomed to fail.

So, let’s look at the new fave-to-timeline feature and its impact on the unengaged users instead.

First, let’s admit it: it takes work, a lot of work, to really see the benefits of Twitter. It takes time to build and curate a follow list that brings you the tweets that you find interesting. It can take years to get a meaningful newsfeed. A recent discussion I overheard on Twitter that Robert Scoble tweeted my way discussed the difference between Twitter and Facebook on events in Ferguson focused on exactly that: your newsfeed depends on who you follow, and both platforms require that you follow “the right people” to get the updates that are more relevant for you.

Maybe these new users are not following the “right” people. And if they are not following the right people, they are not seeing interesting tweets. And if they are not seeing interesting tweets, they are not engaging.

Second, what can this new feature accomplish? One theory offered by Josh Elman was that Twitter would show you a tweet not from someone you follow if it was favorited by someone you follow and already favorited by a large amount of other people. This would mean that a tweet was already demonstrably engaging before being inserted into timelines everywhere, so that the predicted level of engagement would be higher than a random tweet.

For newbies, this is a good thing. Twitter needs to give them reasons to come back more often and feature can encourage that. It can also provide them with a reason to engage, that is, respond or retweet. With so many of them never have tweeted once, that would be a major achievement.

The twist is that, gauging by the responses I’ve seen of experienced users, this could drastically reduce engagement. Right now, a fave can mean several things: it’s used to save an article to read later, it signals the end of a conversation, it acknowledges that a tweet was read, and yes, it also indicates approval, though somewhat reserved. A tweet that is really approved of is retweeted. The new feature will distort that and might result in less favoriting by power users, leading to less favorited tweets, leading to less tweets showing up in other timelines, leading to less engagement for everyone. It could also result in an upswing of the Buzzfeed/Upworthy tweets. Tweets that, as in Facebook, have been optimized to garner faves.

As Twitter rolls this feature out, it will need to closely monitor the response of all user types. If users respond as they have this week, Twitter may need to consider further tweaks, such as allowing users to disable it (appeals mostly to power users, so a good match there) or moving it to the #Discover stream. It could also tweak it per platform, tweak how often it is intersped into the timeline, and tweak how many other faves are required before it is inserted. The problem with all these options is that they lead to some sort of tinkering with the newsfeed, something that long-time users are not happy with.

I’m very interested in seeing how this pans out and hope that Twitter can continue to keep it interesting for the power-users while engaging the newbies, for all of our sakes!

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