Amid the noise of Apple’s annual WWDC keynote yesterday, Twitter posted a note about a new tweak it’s made to the conversation view of tweets that suggests it’s doing (yet) more algorithmic ordering of the content on its network. The new feature started rolling out yesterday.
Last year the company confirmed the launch of a more algorithmic timeline — intentionally diluting the human-powered curation that otherwise defines the network and allows Twitter users to be exposed to a greater breadth of content vs other more tightly controlled social services like Facebook.
Twitter’s motivations in adulterating the information its users see with algorithmically selected content is typically attributed to its problems growing usage — so an attempt to tweak its service so it presents a ‘more enticing’ on-ramp for newbies. Of course long time Twitter users have created plentiful value in the service themselves, so we don’t appreciate this pesky meddling.
Since then Twitter has continued to take steps to control and shape what its users see, launching a ‘while you were away‘ recap feature at the end of last year, which dumps a selection of tweets its algorithms think you’d have liked at the top of your timeline. Again, that can be characterized as an attempt to do some of the legwork for users and surface that elusive ‘interesting stuff’.
This April it also took steps to limit the spread of abuse and violent threats on its platform — testing a pre-emptive, anti-abuse filter that automatically identifies abusive tweets and limits their “reach”. That’s a delicate balancing act for a company that has historically taken a robust pro-free speech position, yet at times appeared to be on the back foot when its platform has been appropriated by co-ordinated hate groups and used as a tool for sustained harassment.
Making tweets appear more engaging
The latest tweak is to the conversation view that can spring up around individual tweets when other users engage with them by directly replying to the tweet.
Twitter is now ordering what would otherwise have been a sequential series of responses — and is again basing its algorithmically controlled hierarchies on an amorphous notion of ‘interestingness’.
Explaining the new feature in a blog post, Twitter product manager Akarshan Kumar writes:
Conversations surrounding a Tweet, particularly if they’ve sparked lots of replies and disparate conversations, can be hard to follow. So, we’re doing a few things to make this much easier: grouping conversations together and highlighting some of the most interesting exchanges surrounding a given Tweet right below that Tweet. To surface some of the most interesting conversations, we’ll take factors into account like whether the original account has replied.
With this tweak, the thin blue conversation line that caused such controversy when Twitter started threading it through connected tweets, back in 2013, again with the aim of making it easier to follow when users were directly @ing each other, now appears to be taking precedence over and above individual replies to tweets. So a singular response to a tweet that goes unremarked on by the original tweeter is likely to be pushed lower down the ladder of tweet responses and displayed below more engaged responses.
For example, here are the first few responses to a tweet recently sent by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron:
In fact the first four grouped responses are nested threaded conversations where Twitter users have engaged with each other in response to the original tweet (although Cameron himself has not chipped in). Individual responses that did not garner any other reactions are generally pushed lower down the info hierarchy. Although it’s not as simple as all conversations being displayed above all individual responses.
It’s not clear what other signals Twitter is using to algorithmically determine which responses should be given display priority. We’ve asked Twitter for more details on how this sorting works and will update this story with any response.
Cameron’s tweets often elicit a high level of abusive responses — and negative sentiment still abounds in the above tweet conversation example, albeit you have to scroll quite far down to encounter the favored Cameron hater insult “dishface”. (And, curiously enough the phrase “fuck off dishface” appears entirely absent, which may be down to Twitter’s earlier attempts to quell abusive trolling.)
As with other Twitter tweaks, the company notes it will “continually be iterating and improving” the new feature — saying its overall aim is to “make it easier to understand and participate in conversations on Twitter as well as to find the best, most relevant content we have to offer”.