Twitter’s timeline problem

Or, why most of my friends have left Twitter

Let me start by saying that I’m not a “normal” user of Twitter: for starters, I don’t use the first-party Twitter app (Tweetbot all the way). I know exactly how many tweets I have left to read, and I have them sync across devices so I never miss anything.

The problem is, no one else I know uses Twitter like this.

One of the apps I love is Circa, which a great solution for seeing through the noise of the news industry and focusing on the stories that matter. They aggregate their news from various sources and distill it down into readable chunks. They also recently introduced a feature called “Daily brief” that prepares the most important stories of the past day for reading at a preset time. I read my daily brief, and it makes me feel like I’m caught up on the world in less than the span of one train ride. Their original app design favored a traditional chronological approach, but I’m convinced their shift to the brief format is the best move they’ve made as a product.

My theory on this has been solidified over the past few weeks. I think the heart of Twitter’s problem is one that affects many other products & services: the chronological approach quickly becomes overwhelming. It doesn’t scale. Simply reporting every tweet in order gives each the same weight and prominence. The problem with social media is that this is never the case. Facebook has worked endlessly to make its News Feed algorithm promote the news you care about most. While we can debate the efficacy of their approach, there’s certainly no arguing that a casual glance at the News Feed gives you much more than a quick glance at your Timeline. Peeking at your Timeline for the first time in days is like looking out the window of a fast moving car: you get a quick glimpse but no indication of the overall journey. Glance at your News Feed after a few days away, and there’s no way you’ll miss that engagement photo that got 300 likes and 150 comments.

For most people who have busy jobs & lives (and too many push notifications), constantly checking Twitter is unfeasible. They want to casually check it in line at the grocery store, or on the train, or when they have 5 free minutes before a meeting. There’s no doubt that Twitter is an amazing service that has value that other social networks (ie Facebook) do not. However, they could take a page out of other network’s books and build a feed that favors important content over recent content. Seeing as most of my friends have abandoned Twitter, it may be too little too late. As a Twitter lover, I hope that’s not the case.