A few days ago Twitter began surfacing tweets favorited by other users in the primary timeline.
Some saw this as odd. Faves are traditionally a less-public way to show approval or, sometimes, to dismiss a conversation. Many people pointed out that showcasing faved tweets in this fashion served the same basic function as a retweet. Maybe, they hoped, it was another mercurial Twitter experiment and it would soon go away.
Today we learned it wasn’t. As Quartz points out, Twitter quietly updated one of its help documents, “What’s a Twitter timeline?” to shed light on what types of content will now begin appearing in your timeline. The key passage:
…when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.
“Relevant and interesting” strikes me as a funny way to characterize it. Some would argue Twitter is the bellwether for relevance and interesting conversations taking place around the world. Twitter users are frequently meticulous about who they follow; it gives them a modicum of control over the kinds of tweets they see. Using “a variety of signals” to parse out and decide what’s relevant for users inches Twitter toward enigmatic Facebook news feed territory. The algorithm is fickle. You never know what you are going to get.
Twitter and Facebook have been borrowing features from each other for some time. But it’s interesting that Twitter feels that its reverse-chronological stream is lacking, particularly with this week’s news cycle. Take this headline from Digiday writer John McDermott, which borrows from a common sentiment I saw floating around on Twitter:
“Facebook is for ice buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson”
Soon the differences might not be so cut and dried.