Twitter Does a Pretty Good Job of Picking Interesting Tweets

Twitter’s new algorithmic timeline is an improvement over the old, confusing-to-outsiders status quo.

Feb 11 2016, 3:40pm

Image: Twitter/Flickr

It's here, and it's… not bad?

Twitter on Wednesday morning began rolling out its highly-anticipated-slash-panic-inducing algorithmic timeline. In English that means Twitter will pepper the top of your timeline with tweets it believes you'll find interesting and relevant.

Because there was so much unease surrounding the idea of an algorithmic timeline—at one point Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was forced to address the angry mob known as #RIPTwitter to allay its concerns that he had decided to ruin the service—I wanted to immediately dive into the feature as soon as it became available to me later that evening.

Luckily for the humans who actually use the service, the change in timeline behavior isn't so much a dramatic re-think of what Twitter is inasmuch as it's a slight tweak to make the service less of a secret handshake between already clued-in users.

The gist of the feature is that, upon loading Twitter, the first few tweets at the top of your timeline are completely out of order. It's not your entire feed, and it doesn't "break" how you use Twitter, but is instead a quick selection of potentially interested tweets. Rather than merely being shown in reverse chronological order, these first few tweets are instead popular tweets pulled from your feed.

I happen to follow three categories of accounts—tech/general news, soccer, and pro-wrestling—and this morning upon loading my timeline there were several out-of-order tweets discussing a pro-wrestling event that occurred overnight. Checking in a little later, there were folks discussing WWE's latest quarterly earnings spliced in with folks discussing the ongoing presidential election. It was slightly strange at first but undeniably tweets I'd like to see front and center. The idea appears to be Twitter saying, "Here, you've been gone for a minute, here's some activity from your network that you might want to check out before diving into the main timeline."

That's it. The algorithmic timeline isn't a complete Facebook News Feed-style makeover, and can quickly be scrolled past by refreshing your browser or the mobile app for the latest tweets delivered like they normally would. The feature is completely optional and (currently, at least) must be opted-into. How long this remains the case Twitter isn't saying, but I'd definitely recommend trying it out to see how it works. You can do so by going into your account settings, and checking the box labeled "Show me the best tweets first" under the Content heading.

The feature, while useful, isn't perfect. What I'd like to see in future iterations is for Twitter to more clearly highlight the tweets that it's algorithmically highlighting. Currently, the only indication that these tweets are selected by Twitter's all-knowing mother brain is their out-of-order timestamps. It takes a minute to sink in, "Oh, these tweets were selected for me, gotcha." An icon next to the timestamp indicating that the tweet in question was selected for me would be a wonderful addition.

The launch of the algorithmic timeline comes at an important moment for Twitter, as it battles Wall Street expectations that it's not growing fast enough. Everyday users may not care how much money Twitter is making, but the added pressure appears to be resulting in a better, easier-to-use product, which is something to care about.