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In an effort to improve the user experience, Twitter has unveiled a new timeline feature that will display tweets out of chronological order.
The aim is that users will avoid missing out on important updates from people they follow.
The feature, which launched Wednesday, is currently optional, but Twitter plans to roll it out as a default in the next few weeks.
Mike Jahr, a senior engineering manager at Twitter, explained how the feature works:
You flip on the feature in your settings; then when you open Twitter after being away for a while, the Tweets you're most likely to care about will appear at the top of your timeline – still recent and in reverse chronological order. The rest of the Tweets will be displayed right underneath, also in reverse chronological order, as always.
At any point, just pull-to-refresh to see all new Tweets at the top in the live, up-to-the-second experience you already know and love.
According to Jahr, "We've already seen that people who use this new feature tend to Retweet and Tweet more, creating more live commentary and conversations, which is great for everyone."
Can an algorithm save Twitter?
Why is Twitter introducing an algorithm into the simple, reverse-chronological timeline that everyone is so familiar with?
Twitter's stock has been battered recently, and although it just reported earnings in line with Wall Street expectations, the company's user growth has stalled, bolstering Twitter skeptics' arguments that its future prospects are questionable.
Many Twitter critics have focused on the product iself, suggesting that Twitter's value proposition just isn't clear and compelling enough to the average user.
Jack Dorsey, one of the co-founders of Twitter, was installed last year as CEO in what was widely seen as a signal that the company recognized that it needed a product-focused leader.
The new timeline feature seems aimed at solving one of Twitter's biggest supposed problems: casual users can be overwhelmed by the service's noise, making it difficult for them to quickly find content that's useful and relevant.
That in turn leads to attrition, something a company with dwindling sources of new growth can ill-afford.
If Twitter's timeline algorithm can do a good enough job of identifying and highlighting quality content, Twitter might have a shot at reducing attrition and attracting new active users, boosting the possibility that Twitter can remain relevant and thrive as other social platforms vie for the finite attention of consumers.
Of course, there are plenty of algorithm skeptics. They include Facebook co-founder Adam D'Angelo, who described a number of potential pitfalls in a detailed Quora post. Among his thoughts...
...there is a larger strategic concern: moving into a space that is closer to Facebook and most other internet products is not necessarily good for Twitter even if it increases usage in the short term. Twitter has thrived despite all the management turnover, slow execution, and attempts at competition because it occupies a unique niche and has an almost total lock on that market.
Even a former Twitter product manager, Paul Rosania, isn't impressed and explained why in a series of tweets...
You won't even notice. You won't! You think you will, but you won't.— Paul Rosania (@ptr) February 6, 2016
Juxtapositioning reverse-chronology with an algorithm is senseless. Reverse-chronology IS an algorithm.— Paul Rosania (@ptr) February 6, 2016
Bad news and good news for brands, marketers
If Twitter proves the skeptics wrong and the timeline feature takes hold, it could prove problematic for brands and marketers active on the platform.
After all, Twitter's timeline algorithm would become yet another algorithm like PageRank or EdgeRank that needs to be understood, monitored and grappled with.
And Twitter could use it to further its monetization interests. For example, it's conceivable that Twitter could use the timeline algorithm to effectively limit organic reach, making it desirable or necessary for brands and marketers to purchase sponsored tweets.
But even if these things come to pass, the timeline feature could be good news for Twitter stakeholders.
Brands and marketers have made significant investments in the Twitter service, and for many, Twitter accounts are among the most important social assets. If Twitter continues to stagnate, lose its relevance and ultimately falls into decline, brands and marketers will lose out.
From this perspective, a Twitter dominated by an algorithm-driven timeline might not be so bad if the algorithm helps Twitter deliver a better user experience. Right now that's a huge if.