Twitter veers into Facebook territory with curated timelines for everyone

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Facebook’s News Feed is filled with posts from people you’re not friends with. You might see a photo of a stranger that your mom commented on, or a random political argument between your high school best friend and some random. The battle for a chronological News Feed has been lost, but at least Twitter was safe. That’s no longer the case.

Twitter announced Thursday night that after months of showing you tweets it thought you might like, the network has decided to pursue a more algorithmic timeline. That means you’ll see tweets from people you don’t follow, based on a variety of factors.

“We recently ran experiments that showed different types of content in your timeline: recommended tweets, accounts, and topics,” Twitter product lead Trevor O’Brien said in a Thursday night blog post. “Testing indicated that most people enjoy seeing tweets from accounts they may not follow, based on signals such as activity from accounts you do follow, the popularity of the tweets, and how people in your network interact with them. These experiments now inform the timeline you see today.”

It’s unclear how Twitter determined that people enjoy seeing those types of tweets, which include favorites that look like retweets.

Why this matters: Your timeline will no longer be filled with just tweets from people you’ve hand-picked to follow (and the sporadic ad). You might see other users’ favorite tweets, or the most-retweeted thoughts of the day. This content could float to the top of your timeline or appear as it happens, but either way, Twitter is about to look very different. And no, you can't opt out.

The inevitable backlash

Twitter revealed changes to the timeline in a tweet on Thursday night. The responses were decidedly anti-algorithm.

“Please don’t” was a common refrain. Another: “I already have that feature. It’s called Facebook.”

But Twitter is pursuing fresh faces, not trying to satisfy power users. Let’s face it: Power users won’t leave. The lure of the constantly refreshing timeline is too strong. But newbies who are confused by Twitter’s language (RT, MT, favorites) and speed, and who struggle to find reasons to tweet at all, need the extra help. If Twitter is going to grow its user numbers and boost timeline engagement to satisfy shareholders and advertisers, it has to make changes.

It doesn’t look like Twitter will abandon the timeline’s reverse chronological order even as it experiments with floating major missed tweets to the top of your stream. It’s also unclear whether power users will see the same sort of algorithmic intervention as newcomers. I suggested last month that Twitter introduce two timelines: a raw, chronological one and a curated version, like the timelines the network regularly rolls out for major events like the World Cup.

Twitter couched the changes as an experiment, one that could easily go in a different direction if people begin fleeing. But they won’t.

More music integration

In an interesting twist, Twitter chose to announce the timeline tweaks in the thick of Apple’s media event coverage on Thursday, and just hours after the network revealed a new way to listen to music in its iOS and Android apps.

Now select Twitter accounts can embed streaming tunes or podcasts via SoundCloud and iTunes in tweets, and you can listen without leaving the social media app. Twitter has tried and failed to tap into its musical potential before (remember the Twitter Music app?), but this new in-app experience could be a hit. Now why would the network bury two radical changes to its product on a day the tech press is distracted by Apple? Twitter’s hoping its algorithmic timeline and music efforts will sink or swim by their own merits, not colored by the mistakes of the past. Can’t blame them.

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