Twitter is embracing the algorithm. Kind of.
Its users will now be able to opt into a feature that displays "the best tweets first," the company announced via blog post Wednesday. If you do so, the social network will rely on an automated process to surface tweets instead of displaying them in a strictly chronological fashion. Reports from Buzzfeed and The Verge anticipated the change days ago, though both articles predicted it would be a more dramatic overhaul.
Opting into the algorithm-based "best tweets" feature could help you navigate the chaos of the popular social network, but there might be a downside. Experts reached by The Huffington Post earlier this week suggested a reordered timeline could make Twitter into something of an echo chamber, at least if its users come to depend on it.
The algorithm's job is to show you what you want to see, so of course you'll be exposed to less of the stuff that challenges your views or makes you uncomfortable. Facebook has this problem, too.
"If you continue to give me things that I like, then you just reinforce my perspective on the world," Sinan Aral, the David Austin Professor of Management, IT and Marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Huffington Post earlier this week.
It might even further polarize someone.
"If it seems like I'm left-leaning but not too left-leaning, then what happens when I only get more and more left-leaning stuff?" Aral added.
In fairness, Twitter's "best tweets" function doesn't exactly represent a sea change for the platform. As the company noted in its announcement, the tweets picked by the algorithm are "still recent and in reverse chronological order," and your normal Twitter programming continues beneath, so you're unlikely to get lost in the algorithm.
But Twitter is practically designed to encourage impulsive behavior -- see something in your timeline and you want to react to it. So, an algorithm that curates tweets at the top of your page might impact your behavior in unexpected ways.
"We will see more things like online firestorms in the future as curated pages will give more users the impression that all their friends are talking about one topic and that they really need to jump in," Juergen Pfeffer, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who has written on biases in social media, told HuffPost in an email Monday.
So... what's the upside?
There's actually a lot to like about a partially automated Twitter. In fact, maybe the new "best tweets" feature doesn't go far enough. If you log onto Twitter now, you're hurled into an unrelenting stream of updates from every account you follow. The longer you're on Twitter, the more likely you are to follow more and more people, which means that eventually you'll have hundreds or thousands of accounts to keep up with.
"It's difficult to overstate the benefits, in the age of information overload, of smart filters, of culling the stuff that we're not going to be interested in," Aral said.
The chaos of Twitter might account for some of the problems the platform has experienced with new user growth. Shareholders aren't happy, and Twitter stock hit its lowest point ever last month. This algorithm might be optional for now, but the company desperately needs it to work.
Think about how you use Facebook: You open the app and spend oodles of time scrolling aimlessly through your News Feed. All the content you see there is surfaced by an algorithm. It's designed to hook you, and it does a good job.
There are other concerns, too. Imagine if an algorithm were smart enough to handle content moderation -- the most sensitive job online. It could help Twitter combat propaganda from an organization like ISIS, or just fight your everyday spam and harassment.
"I have a view that, yes, it is important for companies to be citizens of the world," Aral said. "It's not appropriate in my mind for them to be sort of agnostic and say, well, people can say whatever they want."
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