Twitter is finally leading the way in making a change to its platform that every social network should implement: It’s bringing back the chronological timeline. I’ve been using a workaround to do this for a bit and people have no idea how strong the algorithmic Stockholm syndrome can be.
Aside from banning the Nazis and adding an edit button, displaying tweets in reverse-chronological order is one of the biggest features requested by users. It’s the way things worked in the good ol’ days, back when people tweeted photos of their breakfast. In 2016, an algorithmically-controlled timeline was introduced just in time to coincide with Twitter’s transformation into a hellscape of angry opinions. But on Tuesday, Twitter announced that it’s putting some of the power back into the hands of the user.
In a series of tweets, the company said its timeline driven by algorithms is intended to show “you the most recent Tweets with the best Tweets you’re likely to care about, but we don’t always get this balance right.” After listening to user feedback, the company has decided to update its settings so that if you un-check the “Show the best Tweets first” option, you’ll only see tweets from the people you follow in reverse-chronological order. Soon, Twitter says it’ll start rolling out a tool that will easily enable you to switch between both timeline options.
It’s hard to overstate what a tremendous change this is for Twitter. It’s making a bold move that bucks the trend followed by other social networks like Facebook and Instagram. As much as these platforms want to emphasize that algorithms are doing you a favor by showing you the content they’ve learned you’d like most, these tools tend to amplify the most divisive and emotionally manipulative content because that’s what gets the most “engagement.” That’s a bad thing for all social networks, but on Twitter it’s especially annoying because people look to Twitter to find out what’s happening right this second. The thirst for a more pure feed has turned into a minor-meme that involves some variation on this format:
At this point, Twitter is the only social network I can tolerate. It has plenty of problems, but it’s still plenty useful for news, commentary, and one-liners. But in my experience, it’s felt increasingly stale recently. I seemed to just be seeing the same accounts pop up with everyone talking about the same topics. Then I stumbled on this little workaround from developer Andy Baio that gave me a straight-forward, chronological timeline and I’ve been using it ever since. A kind soul made it easy to use this technique, which is essentially just a custom Twitter search, by creating the url realtwitter.com and redirecting to it. While it’s not as convenient as an app, it’s been an interesting experiment that wasn’t much trouble to try out.
At first, I assumed I was going to be in a blissful state of power-user superiority, seeing all the latest news without having my mind polluted by the most viral tweets from people I don’t know mixed with posts from two days ago, grouped under the ever-more-frequent “In case you missed it” label. I wasn’t disappointed with the experience, but I was surprised at the levels of FOMO I felt without the guiding hand of the algorithm pumping my emotions and keeping me in the heat of the biggest controversies.
The first thing I noticed is that I was seeing the handles of people I follow that I haven’t come across in years. My Twitter bubble was more diverse and interesting than I believed—I just wasn’t seeing everyone before, because people don’t always always craft the perfect, on-topic, viral tweets that the algorithm loves to believe I love. The reverse-chronological experience was refreshing and calmer than I expected. Seeing everything with orderly timestamps felt good and the whole experience seemed like less of a competition to one-up other users with the best twist on a joke.
But it didn’t take long for me to feel the pull of checking back in on the non-chronological timeline to see if I was missing out on anything. I wasn’t. I wasn’t missing anything at all. The biggest thing I was missing was seeing six digits by the retweet icon. Still, I haven’t stopped flipping back and forth yet.
Not everyone thinks about the algorithms that are driving their feeds all the time, but it’s constantly on my mind. So, it came as a shock that I’ve been trained to expect to see the most popular content all the time and have, in some form or another, come to crave it. So many of the problems facing social media companies are rooted in this dynamic. The algorithms are, above all, designed to serve up relevant ads to the user while rearranging the content that you came for with a secret digital sauce that’s designed to keep you as stimulated as possible and always coming back. Not only does this feed into the growing anxiety around psychological manipulation, but I have a strong belief that it contributes to what we post and how we post it.
A chronological timeline gives viral tweets less opportunity to go mega-viral. If a popular tweet is judged by hundreds of likes rather than hundreds of thousands, I think we might see more people posting on a wider variety of topics and experimenting with the format a little more. I could be wrong, and users might just settle into lowered expectations while still chasing the trends and urging everyone to check out their Soundcloud. But something that’s almost certain is that doing a bad tweet is less likely to ruin your life when algorithms aren’t controlling everything. Getting 40 replies pointing out the error of your ways sounds far more likely to provoke some reflection than being buried in thousands of reply-GIFs pumping up that humiliating ratio.
While giving users the option of a chronological timeline seems great for everyone’s mental health, it’s also great for Twitter. Giving users the power to control how their timeline works should go a long way towards eliminating debates around algorithmic bias. Facebook and Twitter have spent months shooting down accusations that they’re deliberately suppressing the viewpoints of one political ideology over another. We should believe them, because they don’t have any particular profit motive to do that, but it doesn’t change the fact that algorithms simply contain natural biases. The humans that design these equations are imperfect and often thoughtless. As long as algorithmic decisions are being made, no claims that users control what they see on a platform can be taken seriously.
Despite my belief that a chronological timeline is better, I couldn’t help but feel like the loss of the algorithm would be just that—a loss. That’s why I’m extremely pleased with the way Twitter is handling this change. We’ve asked Twitter for more information about how the tool to switch between the two timeline options will work and what sort of timeframe we should expect for the roll-out, but we didn’t receive an immediate response. All we know is that tests will start “in the coming weeks.” But it’s also important to note that Twitter’s chronological timeline is a little different than my experience with the workaround.
My pure feed didn’t include replies and retweets, and the new chronological option does. So, if you turn off “Show the best Tweets first” right now, you’ll still see some tweets that appear to be out of order just because someone retweeted an older post. This is fine. As much as I’d like to see Twitter give users full control over this, retweets are good and keep things interesting. Turning the option on and off, I can already see that going with Twitter’s chronological feed results in fewer tweets about the President’s penis looking like Toad from Super Mario Kart and I feel great.
We may find that users simply prefer being manipulated and will stick with the status quo. What’s most important will be Twitter’s bottom line. If everyone foregoes the algorithm and the company’s revenue takes a hit, we can expect others to be even more insistent on taking control away from the user. But if everything works out well, users should demand for everyone else to follow in Twitter’s footsteps.