Twitter keeps hinting at big changes to come. CEO Dick Costolo has spoken publicly about the need to make the network easier to understand and use for newcomers. That includes experimenting with the reverse chronological nature of the Twitter timeline. And comments this week from chief financial officer Anthony Noto set off a panic that the days of Twitter as we know it are numbered.
Before you freak out, though, don't expect Twitter's future to look anything like Facebook's curated News Feed.
Let's look at Noto's comments from a financial conference on Wednesday. The Twitter executive said the timeline as it exists doesn't offer "the most relevant experience for the user," according to the Wall Street Journal. His argument: Unless you're on Twitter all day, you're going to miss important tweets, funny tweets, or conversations other people are having. You'll miss the best of the best. So Twitter is experimenting with new ways to show you content, from showing you tweets your friends favorite to potentially moving away from the chronological timeline.
"Individual users are not going to wake up one day and find their timeline completely ranked by an algorithm," Noto said.
If Twitter is smart, it'll keep its innate Twitter-ness, the real-time stream of often overwhelming information that its core users are addicted to. But it'll also curate a separate timeline with must-see tweets for more casual users.
Twitter has been experimenting with these curated feeds for awhile, and saw success with its World Cup promotion, highlighted by a World Cup-specific timeline during the tournament. During the company's last earnings call, Costolo said Twitter's World Cup efforts didn't attract a slew of new users, but it did boost engagement among existing ones, which is exactly what the network needs.
Lessons from Facebook
Twitter is doing the same for the new football season with separate timelines for NFL-related tweets and live games. These event-specific (and optional) timelines are a sign of curated feeds to come.
But if Twitter ditches its real-time nature altogether, it will become a shadow of Facebook: cherry-picked stories without features like photo albums and fully baked messaging. (Yeah, Twitter's direct messages could use some work.) Without chronological order, Twitter isn't Twitter. When Twitter was abuzz about the unrest in Ferguson, Facebook News Feeds were filled with nothing but Ice Bucket Challenge videos. The two serve different purposes, and filtering the firehose would weaken Twitter's purpose.
Like Facebook, Twitter risks alienating its users by changing core features. But, again like Facebook, the network's changes only cause brief uproars before acceptance settles in. People were furious when Twitter rolled out threaded conversations and in-line images, and now those features are generally considered improvements. In-line images are thought to boost interaction with tweets.
That's not to say power users will adapt to an algorithmic timeline with the same begrudging acceptance they showed threaded conversations and embedded images. But people threatened to flounce away from Facebook when their profiles were "timelined" and to this day shake their fists over the News Feed's finicky algorithms; yet they remain hopelessly devoted to the network. Twitter is taking notes on content curation from Facebook, but has also learned about user behavior from the network. People talk a big game, but they won't leave.
But Twitter could have the best of both worlds with its main product, the real-time feed, and an optional best-of timeline. Here's hoping the network doesn't sacrifice its reason for existing for a few extra eyeballs--or advertisers.