Twitter went ahead and did it.
The company on Wednesday morning began rolling out a feature that selects and inserts the what the company’s algorithms believe are the “best tweets” into users’ timelines. It’s a fundamental shift in how Twitter works, and puts to bed the notion that Twitter automatically equals a straight list of tweets shown in reverse chronological order.
For now, the feature is optional and must be enabled in users’ account settings.
“We think this is gonna make life easier across the spectrum for users,” Twitter product manager Michelle Haq told TechCrunch, claiming that algorithmically surfacing the “best tweets” encouraged beta testers to interact with the service more.
In truth, the feature appears to be more of an expansion of an earlier feature called While You Were Away that surfaced popular tweets you might have missed upon first opening the Twitter app.
Twitter is being cagey with how, exactly, its all-knowing algorithms determine what tweets to surface, telling Fast Company that it’s “not talking about technical details.” But even without knowing the secret sauce, it’s not much of a stretch to assume the algorithm will take into account “signals” like the number of likes and retweets a tweet has in determining what to show you at the top of your timeline. I, for example, often wake up on Tuesday mornings to several While You Were Away tweets talking about the previous night’s WWE Monday Night Raw because I happen to follow many accounts that are part of “wrestling Twitter,” which is a lot like “NBA Twitter” but with a lot more complaining.
While the change may not have warranted the #RIPTwitter hashtag that began trending worldwide on Friday evening after BuzzFeed broke the news of the feature, it does speak to larger issues that Twitter is facing, mainly that the company appears to be torn between placating its small-ish (320 million monthly active users versus Facebook’s 1.59 billion), albeit passionate, user base while at the same time trying to get more everyday people using the service. Whether your Mom, for example, will be convinced to join the flock because a couple of popular tweets are now automatically highlighted for her, remains to be seen.