#RIPTwitter - Is Twitter doomed or just misunderstood? A defence of its expected algorithm introduction
Many a false celebrity death rumour has made its way into Twitter's trending topics but today it's the platform's own alleged demise that's hogging the top spot.
Prompted by an article suggesting an 'algorithmic timeline' could arrive as soon as next week, Twitter's users are up in arms and seem ready to declare #RIPTwitter. Personally I beg to differ; the changes being made may panic super users but they'll improve the experience for the vast majority and ultimately open up bigger opportunities for marketers.
Such a timeline would see posts displayed by their supposed level of interest not just all appearing live as they are posted, rather like Facebook arranges its own timeline. For purists that's the straw that breaks the camel's back, following on from a string of recent tweaks, senior staff departures and a constant swirling rumour that the 140 character limit (the other 'critical' part of Twitter's DNA) will also be removed.
Certainly the easiest way to describe Twitter is to focus on the short length of its posts and the unfiltered length of its timeline but there's always been more to it than that. Twitter's USP is that it provides a live connection to culture, that by being public by default it allows for the rapid sharing of information and inspires conversations and moments that could never happen just in your existing social circles. Longer tweets, no doubt still truncated to 140 characters, don't change that, they just allow more information to be right in front of you without having to click away. A managed timeline, if done correctly, also doesn't prevent you following things in the moment, it just makes you more likely to see the biggest stories and most cutting opinions amongst all the clutter.
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No one knows this better than Facebook which has arguably tried much harder to be Twitter than the other way round. The Promoted Post, Facebook's main advertising product, is fundamentally something Twitter introduced first. Trends, Live Video and even an attempt at unfiltered timelines around sport events can't change the fact that most users are only posting to their friendship groups and there simply isn't a public discourse to tap into. As a result, trends on Facebook change slowly and only reflect big commercial moments, and while Live Video is rolling out to all users you'll never be able to dive in to a breaking news event and see it from a stranger’s perspective as you can on Periscope. When things happen 'on social media' they still happen on Twitter.
Twitter will have to be careful because the immediacy of its timeline is what makes it so fun around live TV and events, but no one's really saying it willcompletely remove that option. Perhaps now instead you won't miss out on the best tweets sent around it in all the noise? It's hard to imagine that if you refresh often enough you won't still be able to see a completely live stream if you choose. Trying to keep up with the tweets around a big live moment like the Super Bowl or Eurovision can be genuinely hard at present, if you follow a larger number of users. The 'While you were away' feature has been successfully curating timelines for some time now, and in doing so making the experience better for average users. Most people don't log on to Twitter every hour, not even every day, so having a curated stream bubbles to the surface a lot more interesting content than diving into a live stream.
And that's exactly the point: Twitter is primarily about consuming content not posting it (40 per cent of active users never tweet, three times as many people see tweets every month than are logged in users) and one of its biggest growing challenges is clutter. For light users, almost by definition the silent majority, anything which makes it easier to see great content and not to miss out on these big Kanye West-involving Twitter moments that everyone's talking about is a good thing. Instagram is facing similar challenges and introduced an algorithm to help people 'Discover' content in a separate tab accordingly, which has now become a popular feature. Twitter 'Moments', like Snapchat's public 'Stories', uses a team of real human editors to curate what's happening, again trying to make it easy to see through the noise.
There are bound to be endless debates about how this affects 'organic reach' of marketers' posts and many services popping up to help you maximise this. With a pure unfiltered timeline the number of people seeing your posts is already tiny given how quickly your content is pushed down the page; this tweak changes nothing (Facebook's own algorithm, contrary to popular opinion, actually helps our advertisers' content). As on any social network the marketing opportunity on Twitter is always to promote content well beyond your core followers, and as Twitter starts serving ads to logged out users and eventually on embedded tweets the potential to do that is immense. Far from being doomed, Twitter is sitting on $1bn of extra revenue scale.
That isn't to say it shouldn't be worried. Marketers' decisions are often swayed by headlines and despite the platform transforming into a rich, video-heavy service with huge scale that should delight them, those headlines are nearly all jumping to other conclusions. Similarly whilst the vast majority of Twitter's users are completely oblivious to these changes, and nonplussed by them if they do hear, the vocal minority could cause problems if they manage to propel the notion of Twitter's demise into popular culture. BuzzFeed writing articles hinting at that won't help its cause.
In all likelihood it will have another tough earnings call this week, and investors will take slow user growth and all the recent headlines as very ominous signs. Twitter is quickly pulling off a sticking plaster and attempting to make all the changes it needs to to stay relevant all in one go. The most comparable news cycle to this was when Facebook was 'doomed' to marketers because it wasn't mobile, young people were quitting it and organic reach was declining. Similarly I kept feeling the need to write pieces in their defence back then, and we all know how that turned out...
Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat