Twitter Respected Our Choices Until It Didn’t

screenshot of Twitter

Twitter was the best. Twitter did no content curation (except, I recently learned, for the anti-spam bots). Instead, it was up to the user to filter, as much or as little as she wanted. Twitter’s filtering tools aren’t great. There are third-party tools to help, but it’s yet another barrier for new or non-technical users. Some people say that’s the reason Twitter’s growth is slowing. But it’s also what made Twitter great. Twitter was pure. Twitter was honest. You saw everything you asked to see. Twitter didn’t hide content from you (even when we sometimes wished it would…). Twitter didn’t guess what you want to see. It dumped everything on you and it was up to you to figure out what you want to read. It looks likes that’s going to change.

Earlier this summer, I read Mat Honan’s Wired piece about liking everything on Facebook for a week. I’m not a Facebook person (I have a hidden account that I use a handful of times a year for things like looking at something that isn’t public-facing or linking the account to games for extra points) so I view Facebook as an outsider who does not see much value in the network. But still, I continue to be struck by how much curation Facebook does on behalf of its users.
Tim Herrera tried to figure out just how much Facebook isn’t showing him and could only conclude that it’s a lot.

Although the Facebook Newsfeed algorithm is heavily guarded, conceptually we know the goal is to show people stuff they’ll like. As Eli Pariser has shown us, that can be a potentially dangerous behavior, reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions, rather than broadening worlds for people. Of course, Facebook’s mission isn’t to make us better people. It’s a business with responsibilities to stock-holders. Now Twitter, another public company with stock-holders, is going in the same direction.

Twitter was the Linux of social networks (I know. I know. Identi.ca. I just don’t know anyone who uses it…). Not that all Linux users should use Twitter or like Twitter or tolerate Twitter. But it was worthy of our appreciation. Because as a service, it tried to give users choice. People have been concerned about Twitter becoming more like Facebook for a while now, but for me the question was if Twitter let me see everything posted by the accounts I chose to follow. As long as Twitter let me see everything I asked to see, then it wasn’t too much like Facebook.

Choice is becoming tougher to maintain in technology. My phone is full of apps I can’t tweak. I could choose not use the apps or the phone, but it’s not a realistic option for me. So I make the most of the situation, hoping that as Android matures and as other mobile operating systems emerge, that maybe one day I’ll have the customizability on my phone that I have on my computers. Twitter was another area where I felt my choices were being respected. Right now, Twitter is respecting my choices, but it seems like that’s going to change very soon.

Emily Bell nails it: algorithms are values. Twitter is about to force us to adopt its values whether we want to or not. What’s good for a business isn’t necessarily good for its users. It’s a lesson we seem to keep learning (and forgetting).


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