Should Twitter algorithmically curate the timeline?

Zeynep Tufekci on says no.  It seems Twitter is considering (instituting?) a method that would ignore strict reverse chronology, and if a user hasn’t accessed his or her timeline in a while, the more popular tweeters would be given some kind of priority in the queue.

She considers how the tweets about the death of Osama bin Laden spread so effectively, and from the account of a user (Keith Urbahn) who did not have many followers:

I honestly doubt that there is an algorithm in the world that can reliably surface such unexpected content, so well. An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know. Yet, there is a vast amount of judgement and knowledge that is in the heads of Twitter users that the algorithm will inevitably flatten as it works from the data it has: past user behavior and metrics. I have witnessed Twitter network’s ability to surface unexpected content again and again, from matters small to large.

I suspect the really big news will get out very quickly under just about any reasonable algorithm.  The broader question is what kind of model we should use to consider Twitter curation.  Believe it or not, I am led to the thought of Ronald Coase.

As a reader, I seek an algorithm which weeds out some repetition.   For instance I sometimes see a article in my feed from three different sources — it would suffice to see it once, along with a color shading indicating that some other people in my feed were tweeting the same thing.  I also would like blocks on tweets about the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, and so on.

That said, from a Coasean perspective, the tweeters may wish to impose these messages on me nonetheless.  Allowing users to create their perfect filters would in equilibrium mean that those sources send fewer other tweets through the system.  Some might leave Twitter altogether.  They are producing a service for free, and the ability to impose the bundle on me and other readers is part of what they value.  And indeed I also send self-promoting tweets (a justifiable practice provided it is not abused), and that is for me one reason to be on Twitter.  In other words, a major goal is to keep tweeters interested in supplying content, not to give every reader a perfect experience, and those two variables often conflict.

At the margin, should Twitter institute queuing rules to encourage the tweeters with many readers or the tweeters with relatively few readers?  The answer is not obvious.  The major tweeters produce more social value through their greater number of followers, but they may be reaping such high returns from being on Twitter that they don’t need added encouragement at the margin.  One approach is to prioritize well-regarded tweets, regardless of the number of followers of the tweeter.

For myself, I believe the ideal algorithm is to prioritize tweets from those who are “like” me in the sense of following similar people.  Or perhaps using similar grammatical constructions, or having tweeted similar links in the past.

Within these rules there are further opportunities for Coasean bidding for attention, using the @ function and also direct messages.

A separate issue is whether Twitter may wish to remedy the “overfishing” of the common pool of our attention which occurs when too many people tweet at peak time, and not enough people tweet at off peak times.  I suspect the demand for immediate gratification is too high for there to be gains from reshuffling the supply of tweets across time.

Overall I don’t see why company-regulated customization has to be a negative.  Tufekci put her anti-curation piece on Medium, which itself seems to have algorithms of curation, which in this case (fortunately) led me to her argument, wrong though it may be.


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