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22nd Mar 2019

Would You Choose a Chronological Newsfeed over an Algorithmic Newsfeed?


In the early days of Twitter, seeing what your favourite accounts had posted was as easy as heading to your timeline. There, users saw tweets appear as they were written, scrolling by in a reverse chronological feed. This straightforward timeline (which was literally based on time) allowed Twitter users to keep up with the most accurate and up-to-the-minute tweets, an interactive element which seemed to be an essential part of Twitter itself.

But in 2016, Twitter decided that its users would be better served by an algorithmic feed; one that used a host of factors to ‘decide’ what updates were most relevant to a user. These updates would be shown first, regardless of when they had been tweeted (although they would be recent). Ideally, this would make for more interesting, engaging feeds, since the algorithm was meant to showcase what a user was most interested in.

This came hot on the heels of Facebook’s switch to an algorithmic timeline. And Instagram was soon to follow. Algorithms were all the rage.

By March 2016, the algorithmic feed had been rolled out to every Twitter user. Now in late 2018, it seems that Twitter intends to bring back the chronological news feed...or at least provide users with the option to choose their preference.

A few weeks ago, Twitter announced that it is working on creating an easy way to let people choose between a chronological or algorithmic newsfeed on their accounts. This comes as welcome news to those who have long lamented the algorithm, but why does such a thing matter? And which will you choose to use?

The Problem with an Algorithm

The main concern with an algorithmic news feed is the lack of control. While the algorithm is supposed to show you what you most want to see, how can you be sure it’s getting it right? What if you’re missing out on the content that truly interests you? Even an algorithm can get it wrong.

Many users bristle at this approach; the algorithm is guiding and influencing what they see, hear, and read. And what makes it doubly distasteful is it is not how most social media platforms started.

When users first signed up for Twitter (and Facebook and Instagram) the major platforms were still using chronological news feed. This provided a social media network with an instant, “live” feeling that made it feel exciting and unhindered. But an algorithmic news feed? In many ways, that changed just what these networks were about: the unfiltered sharing of ideas, in real time.

An algorithmic news feed, it can be argued, robs us of what made social media fun in the first place.

Businesses and marketers were none too happy about the changes either. An algorithm makes it more difficult to reach users on their newsfeeds, as they’re less likely to prefer interaction with ads and sponsored content, thus filtering out these items over time. Ultimately, marketers saw Twitter’s shift to an algorithmic feed as taking away the opportunity for free, unmitigated consumer reach. Instead, paid advertisements would have to be undertaken to ‘outsmart’ the algorithm. The idea of becoming “pay to play” has remained a complaint against all the major social platforms since algorithms hit the scene.

What is Twitter Doing?

With its announcement to resurrect the chronological timeline, it seems that Twitter is listening to its users. Rather than a curated feed that displays “top-ranked” tweets first, and “in case you missed it” content, your timeline will have the option to be a straightforward reverse chronology.

While the company is currently working on a solution that will make it super simple to return to the original timeline, you can currently alter a few settings to change things up yourself. As of now, you can navigate into the Content section in your settings. Here, you can uncheck the box for “Show the best tweets first.” This gives you the ability to switch right away into the chronological timeline, removing the highlighted/curated tweets, recommended tweets from users you don’t follow, and the “in case you missed it” tweets. Ultimately, Twitter says it intends to generate a timeline in which users can easily switch between the two types of feeds.

And the People Rejoiced

The news of Twitter’s decision was largely greeted with positive responses across the network. But why is something like a newsfeed such a big deal to users? What is the purpose behind providing users with a choice?

A chronological newsfeed has an element of neutrality to it that users long for. An algorithmic feed is controlled (however subtly or robotically) and thus it influences what we’re seeing. And, as this article from Vox puts it, there is “a growing distrust and weariness of algorithmic curation, the way social media algorithms increasingly help to spread misinformation, and the loss of user control over what they see on their feeds.” It can be tough for users to feel confident that an algorithm is working as intended (or even working with their best interests at heart). Even social media leaders admit that these features don’t always work as designed.

The shift to a chronological option can also make users feel that their content matters more. With an algorithmic feed, a tweet, status, or post may be published but go unseen by one’s followers. While it can definitely be argued that a post can get lost in the chaos of an uncurated chronological feed, this approach at least provides all users with a “fighting chance” of having their tweets seen.

Will Facebook and Instagram Follow Suit?

Though Twitter is making the move, it’s still difficult to say if the other major players (Facebook and Instagram) will do the same. There have certainly been plenty of user complaints about algorithms on both platforms.

From a business perspective, it makes sense for Facebook and Instagram to stick with their algorithmic approach, as this provides an incentive for businesses to take out paid advertisements and “boost” their posts. But if an algorithmic newsfeed pushes users away, eventually, those ads will be blasting to an empty room.

Chronologic or algorithmic: which type of newsfeed would you choose?

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