Twitter is allegedly about to make a BIG change to its timeline function. Gone will be the real-time experience of tweets shown in chronological order, and in will come algorithmically targeted tweets, shown for their relevance to the user, rather than when they’re posted.
And the twittering classes seem less than enamoured with this proposed update – in fact, judging by the #RIPTwitter hashtag, they’re downright furious!
Change for the better?
Change is definitely a good thing, especially in the world of software, technology and social media. You need to tweak, improve and evolve your offering to meet the needs of an ever changing audience – to stand still is to stagnate and end up as the next MySpace.
But when you bring in substantial chance, it should happen for a reason. Change for change’s sake does no-one any favours. In fact, it will usually have quite the reverse effect.
So when you DO make a change to a successful service there are three key considerations you really have to bear in mind:
- Before you make ANY change, make sure you know what your business is good at.
- Listen to customer’s views on any proposed changes and take heed of their feedback.
- Don’t go ahead with change, against customer’s wishes, if it’s purely to increase profits.
So, do we think Twitter has kept these three points in mind before developing a more targeted, non-sequential approach to its timeline? The jury’s still out…
Know what you’re good at
Since its inception back in 2006, Twitter has had two key elements that made it different to other social media:
- The length of a post or ‘tweet’ being restricted to 140 characters.
- The real-time nature of its timeline – the constantly updated stream of tweets.
The timeline has always been (more or less) a real-time stream of tweets, shown as they’re posted.
We’ve had updates that allow ‘promoted tweets’ to pop up outside this chronological timeline, and we’ve also seen the more recent inclusion of the ‘While you were away’ function that shows recent tweets you may have missed.
But what makes Twitter such an engaging experience for many tweeters is that they’re reading something that’s literally just been posted. That, in truth, is the killer USP of Twitter: the ability to create short micro-posts that can be read as they’re posted
THAT’S what makes Twitter the social media of choice for so many.
News is on the ball and up to date, tweeted ‘as it happens’. Movies and TV shows can be ‘live tweeted’ by the two-screen generation, making television a social experience once again. You can read, comment on and interact with everyone else on Twitter – immediately, proactively and safe in the knowledge that you’d potentially get an almost immediate response.
Throwing that element of immediacy away seems like the wrong move to many – and I’d have to count myself as one of them.
Listen to your audience!
People hate the algorithm idea – as evidenced by some of the vitriol coming out of the #RIPTwitter hashtag.
Now, as any software developer will tell you, end users can be resistant to change. The more change-averse user will want things to stay exactly how they are, so they know precisely what to expect when opening an app.
You HAVE to challenge this, of course. New functions, new interfaces and new ways of doing things are crucial to the vitality and evolution of any application.
But when so many people turn around and say ‘WTF! This is a crazy idea!!’, as the developer, you really do have to take note. Ultimately, ‘customer experience’ should always win over ‘predetermined design’.
The details of the proposed algorithm are still sketchy. You may be able to turn it on, you may be able to tailor it – we don’t know yet.
However, what’s clearly apparent from the exasperated tweets appearing from end users is that they don’t want to be TOLD what’s important in their timeline. Choice is a clear part of the real-time timeline’s success – as intelligent adults, we prefer to find and choose the tweets we like, rather than have them algorithmically targeted at us.
Don’t do it for the big bucks
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going through Twitter HQ’s collective mind.
By allowing the timeline to change from real-time to targeted, it will be MUCH easier for big brands to get their tweets popping up in front of an intended audience – in much the same way that your Facebook timeline is now a long stream of promoted and targeted marketing posts.
And there’s only one real reason why Twitter would want to do that: to make money. If you can attract advertising and revenues from large, corporate brands you can improve profits at a stroke. And that’s great news for the company’s CFO… but not so good for the end user!
As any good businessperson will tell you, without your customers, you don’t have a business. So making a development decision that really, REALLY annoys your end users could backfire massively if things go wrong.
Alienate your customers enough and they will just disappear. And without an audience, your big-spending advertisers will soon disappear as well.
Always listen to your customer – and always make them happy. The golden rule!
A wild river, or a stagnant canal?
So, is Twitter about to dramatically shoot itself in the foot? Only time will tell. But here’s an analogy that may emphasise why a non-chronological approach is problematic.
Think of your Twitter timeline as a fast-moving river, flowing past you. Imagine for a moment that someone’s playing a combination of ‘pooh sticks’ and ‘message in a bottle’, putting notes into floating containers and chucking them into the river further upstream.
As a Twitter user, you’re standing on a bridge over the river, holding a fishing rod and waiting for the ‘pooh stick messages’ to float by. If you like the look of one, you hook it out of the water, open the bottle and read the note. You’ll miss some of the bottles, but you ultimately have a choice over what you hook and what you don’t.
And the thrill is in that real-time experience. You may miss a great bottle, but you may also grab a message that’s totally unexpected.
In a nutshell, it’s unpredictable and it’s fun!
Now let’s imagine an algorithmically driven example of that game…
In this scenario, the wild, untamed river is unceremoniously dammed by Twitter. It puts a huge wall across the torrent and creates thousands of smaller, weaker, slower-flowing channels.
Brands pay Twitter to take their message first, pushing the others to the back of the queue, and firing their bottles in your direction.
Instead of standing on a bridge, white water splashing past you as you hook out the messages of your choice, you’re now stood next to a tamed, artificial canal, full of highly branded bottles bobbing towards you.
And worse of all, you don’t even have to hook them. They just extend little robot legs and run out of the water straight at you, screaming “Buy me! Buy me! BUY ME!!” as they screech into your face and you fall back onto the grassy bank…maybe…
Think before you jump, Twitter
Yeah, a bit melodramatic, I know. But it gets the point across.
What I (and many others) love about Twitter is hooking out the messages I choose. I love that wild torrent of tweets, and knowing I can dip into, and dip out of, it whenever I want to.
What I DON’T want is another social media channel where I can be profiled, targeted and generally honed in on by eager marketers (and, I AM an eager marketer, so I know what I’m talking about here).
So, Twitter HQ, have a think before you jump headfirst into this change, please. Keep it wild and unpredictable, not tame and targeted.