Why Twitter isn’t becoming just like Facebook

Twitter is in a tizzy over the future of Twitter. The site’s most ardent users fear that it’s on the verge of abandoning its most distinguishing feature: a timeline that shows every single tweet from everyone you follow, in order of how recently it was tweeted.

They fear, in other words, that Twitter is about to become a lot more like Facebook, which uses secret machine-learning algorithms to decide which posts its users see and which they don’t. Those algorithms are at once the most widely reviled feature of Facebook – the reason its news feed is choked with viral memes and baby photos – and the key to its staggering popularity.

For Twitter to adopt similar algorithms would be a major change in strategy. It’s a change that could vastly broaden its reach. But it would come at the cost of infuriating its most loyal users.

The immediate cause of this fear is a series of comments made by the company’s chief financial officer at a recent tech conference, reported in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the paragraph that inspired the panic:

“Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this ‘isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,’ (CFO Anthony) Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. ‘Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.’ ”

Noto tried to cushion the blow a bit, saying the changes would be implemented carefully and incrementally. “Individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm,” he said. But that only reinforced the impression that users are going to wake up one day and find their timelines at least partially ranked by an algorithm.

In fact, in a small way, they already have: Last month, Twitter began occasionally peppering users’ timelines with tweets from users they don’t follow. CEO Dick Costolo later clarified that this is meant to happen only in a very specific circumstance: when a user refreshes her timeline at least twice in a row without finding any new tweets from people she does follow. Still, to those attuned to such changes, it feels like the first stumble down a slippery slope to Facebook-style filtering.

Fortunately, I don’t think the slope is as slippery as it seems.

“Filtering” is a loaded word in social media circles. It’s one thing for content to be highlighted, reorganized, or added to your feed. “Filtering” implies that some of it is actually being hidden, and that spooks people.

Facebook’s news feed does this. For years it has relied on sophisticated algorithms to display only those posts they deem most relevant to a given user. You can scroll down all you want, but the majority of new posts from your friends and the sites you follow will never appear.

Facebook’s reasoning is that if you saw every post from every one of your friends, the vast majority of them would simply bore and annoy you. And, ultimately, Facebook itself would bore and annoy you.

For most people, that’s absolutely true. It’s a function of Facebook’s dual role as a social news feed and a digital address book. Just because you friend someone doesn’t mean you care to see his every status update from now until death do you part. That’s why Facebook engages in filtering, despite the relentless criticism it endures as a result.

Twitter is different. You can follow your friends, sure, but you’re not required to do so just because they follow you. A lot of people use it primarily to follow celebrities, comedians and news outlets as opposed to, say, their 10th-grade classmates and second cousins. As a result, Twitter has been able to get away with showing people every tweet from everyone they follow without losing its appeal. The raw, unfiltered flow imbues the service with a sense of transparency and immediacy that Facebook can’t match.

The straightforward reverse-chronological order is ideal for newshounds who refresh their timelines continually throughout the day. Unfortunately for Twitter, newshounds form only a fraction of the populace. Most people would rather sip their news and commentary from a water bottle than slurp it from a fire hose. And when big news breaks, even the most avid tweeters can get frustrated with the noisy, repetitive, and fragmented flow of the collective conversation.

Will Oremus writes about new technology for Slate (