Twitter’s Brush with Death

Better DaysYou might have missed it, but over the weekend, Twitter died.

Indeed, the #RIPTwitter hashtag was trending worldwide. (I’ll let others ponder the metaphysics of a social medium serving as the platform for its own condolences.)

It turns out, however, that Twitter wasn’t quite dead yet. Really, it’s getting better, reassured Jack (@jack) Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, in a tweet Saturday afternoon:

“Twitter is live. Twitter is real-time. Twitter is about who & what you follow. And Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y.”

What led to Twitter’s brush with death? On Friday, BuzzFeed reported that Twitter was considering implementing a new “algorithmic timeline,” as soon as this week. Currently, your  Twitter timeline consists of every tweet from everyone you follow, in reverse chronological order. The new timeline would “reorder tweets based on what Twitter’s algorithm thinks people most want to see.” This would make Twitter function more like Facebook, which has featured an algorithmically determined news feed since 2011. 

Twitter users were not happy about this news. Why not? In general, we fear the filter bubble, something I wrote about back in 2011 when Facebook turned on the algorithms. We don’t want anyone’s algorithms managing how we connect with others through Twitter or how information moves through the Twitter network. A few highlights from the pushback:

  • Zeynep (@zeynep) Tufekci tweeted, “Twitter’s core, it’s beating heart, is conversation, it’s human filters, and real-time interaction. Algorithm kills all that.”
  • Erin (@erinruberry) Ruberry wrote, “Twitter is at its best during live events and breaking news. A non-chronological timeline ruins its entire function and purpose.”
  • And @SwiftOnSecurity, my favorite Taylor Swift-inspired computer security Twitter account, joked, “Breaking: Twitter to prioritize displaying my tweets over yours.”

These and other tweets led #RIPTwitter to trend by Saturday morning. That, in turn, led Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to send out some reassuring tweets Saturday afternoon, starting with this one: “Hello Twitter! Regarding : I want you all to know we’re always listening. We never planned to reorder timelines next week.”

Whew. Crisis averted.

For now.

This weekend I was reminded that I’ve built a house on land I don’t own, to paraphrase Michael Hyatt. That is, I’ve built a robust and useful social network on Twitter, but I have very little control over the platform. Saturday morning, when things looked grim for Twitter, I wondered what I would do if, indeed, Twitter effectively died for me. Sure, I could archive my own tweets, and I could move to some other social network that provided functionality I liked better. But, as Christopher (@ricetopher) Rice pointed out, it’s the “social graph” I’ve constructed on Twitter that’s its real value to me. And that would die with Twitter.

I don’t have a solution to this quandary. I’m sure I’ll continue to use Twitter, given how valuable it continues to be professionally and personally. However, I might start reinvesting in platforms I own and control, like this blog. In the last couple of years, I’ve practiced what might be called “slow blogging,” posting just once every month or two with long, hopefully thoughtful essays. Twitter has become my go-to for “faster” writing, but perhaps that should change. I’m going to see if I can get back in the habit of blogging more frequently, with shorter posts, not unlike this one you’re reading right now. So far, it’s not going well; it’s taken me an hour to write this post! But perhaps I’ll get faster with practice.

I’m also going to be a bit more careful about treating Twitter like a permanent resource. For instance, you’ll notice in this post I didn’t embed tweets using Twitter’s embedding tool. Instead, I quoted the text of the tweets I wanted to mention. It’s more work to quote than to embed, but, this way, if Twitter disappears, I’ll still have a copy of those tweets.

For readers who are regular Twitter users, did this weekend’s brush with death change how you use Twitter? Where you answer that question — here in the comments or over on Twitter — will be telling…

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