Twitter has been a bastion of self-curation, unlike Facebook, which has puzzled — and sometimes infuriated users — by embracing an algorithm to determine what users see in their feed. But that’s about to change.
When Twitter CEO Dick Costolo presented earnings to Wall Street last month, he told analysts that the company was not “ruling out any kind of changes” to its feed. He added, “you’ll see a number of kinds of experiments that we produce here.”
Over the weekend, one such experiment quietly landed in mobile users’ feeds.
Some users noticed that their mobile timeline — normally filled with posts from users they follow, those users’ retweets and ads — suddenly had a newcomer: a tweet favorited by a user they follow.
Twitter issued a public clarification in a post titled, “What is a timeline?”
“Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline,” the post states. “This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.”
Twitter declined to comment beyond the post.
Nudging the casual user
The changes only apply to the mobile app, an executive familiar with the company said. The timeline changes are designed to surface content similar to what a user is posting and seeing. But the company has not ruled out the possibility that branded content could jump to mobile feeds under the changes, the executive said.
Mobile poses a challenge for the company because of its smaller real estate. The desktop site allows for algorithmic and paid discovery. In essence, the changes are a way to pull posts from Twitter’s Discover tab over into the main feed, where they will receive more eyeballs.
At the moment, the changes don’t impact Twitter’s ad products, which the company has recently expanded. The morphing of the timeline on mobile is more of an effort to increase engagement, particularly with content outside the stream. That’s been a challenge on mobile, where Twitter’s users are gravitating.
Twitter likes to slip in tweaks to its product quietly. And typically it does not alert its advertisers. Like most users, Sean Muzzy, CEO at digital agency Neo@Ogilvy, learned of the recent changes from his Twitter stream. The reaction, he said, was “largely negative.”
But the product changes aren’t aimed at avid users, who are often the most vocal about adjustments to the platform. Instead, Twitter is trying to fuel more engagement from its casual users, who, the company hopes, may be searching in vain for new accounts and conversations to follow.
Twitter’s ad dollars are ballooning — last quarter ad revenues increased by 129% to $277 million. Yet user engagement is not keeping pace. The number of monthly active users, at 271 million as of June, has not grown as quickly as expected. And growth in timeline views, Twitter’s metric for feed refreshes per active user have been declining.