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Looking Closer at Twitter's Algorithms Reveals the Depth of Their Monitoring

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A little over a year ago, Twitter started taking steps to make their timeline algorithmic, instead of chronological. This change was one chapter in a kind of new age of timeline organisation, as platforms started to place the most relevant posts at the tops of timelines and news feeds, rather than the most recent. In that sense, even the term 'timeline' become somewhat redundant. Although many users rallied against it at the time, citing it as too similar to Facebook, when it arrived, nobody seemed to care all that much.

Did people praise the newly restructured timeline? No, but they didn't berate it either, and Twitter just sort of ticked along as normal. What users maybe didn't realise, and what this new feature by Slate's Will Oremus outlines is that the change came at a cost - the constant monitoring of user activity.

When I say constant, I mean constant. Even if you're almost completely inactive, barring the odd sign in to check your feed, Twitter has your number. If you spend more time reading tweets by particular authors, even if you don't actually ever like, retweet or respond to them, Twitter still monitors that, and alter your feed accordingly. Facebook employ a very similar strategy, and recently applied it to their forward plans regarding reactions, but we've known about that for much longer.

Twitter's user base are no fans of Facebook, and any similarities between the two platforms tend to be met with scorn. Generally speaking, Twitter avoid taking cues from Facebook, but in this case they've imitated not only their approach, but their company ethos - delivering 'tailored' content to their users. That ethos is why Facebook have faced so much backlash regarding fake news, and why their platform is so synonymous with the term 'echo chamber', above and beyond Twitter.

There's a very fine line between convenient and overzealous, in this case. Sure, we want a better Twitter, one which understands what we want and need as a user base, but do we want our every move so closely monitored that we're being delivered content based not on who we elect to follow, but on a fine-toothed approximation of all our activity on the platform? That's not us, Twitter, that's a very small fraction of our day-to-day behaviour, and it doesn't always reflect our views.

For example, I could spend a little longer reading a tweet chain by an author because I'm flabbergasted at how utterly ignorant or offensive it is. It does not mean that I want more similar content appearing on my feed. Generally speaking, it makes sense that platforms keep track of user activity, and even if it seems creepy, you didn't sign up to the service under some kind of secrecy clause. Twitter's right to monitor your activity is right there in the terms and conditions. You have read those, yeah?

The bigger worry here is that Twitter are losing sight of what makes their feed that much superior to Facebook's - variety of content. In terms of how a feed is built, personal choice is always going to be more important than behavioural patterns, there are just too many variables. Let people decide how to Twitter, don't do it for them.



Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @Songbird_Callum

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Looking Closer at Twitter's Algorithms Reveals the Depth of Their Monitoring Reviewed by Callum Davies on Wednesday, March 08, 2017 Rating: 5

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