Twitter has altered the deal. Pray it doesn’t alter it further.
Sometime soon, a point which I’ve known to be inevitable yet tried to ignore will be reached: Twitter will implement an algorithm that displays tweets to me not simply in the order in which anyone I follow has tweeted them, but in an order which it will decide. The degree to which this prospect upsets me is plainly absurd, but these are my feelings and I’m not going to deny them. In fact, this being the social media age, what could I possibly do but share them with you?
I like tweeting. A lot. What else could you conclude about something I’ve done 24,000 times? It’s halfway to the number of times I’ve eaten in my life, and is on a pace to catch up. I’m a special collections librarian, and Twitter is a great medium for sharing cool things in my library’s collection and those around the world.
It’s also a great mechanism for feeding the hungry ego-monster I was genuinely surprised to discover I was harboring inside me. Anytime I have a popular tweet, I am transfixed by watching the retweets come in. Favorites (you heard me) are great too, but it’s the retweets I really crave — they amplify my voice, and for an introvert, that’s a dazzling, intoxicating feeling. (Of course, as a white male, I have the privilege not to bear the negative aspects of Twitter’s amplification: its facilitation of harassment against those whom white men don’t wish to hear speaking.)
Being good at Twitter, and I am not going to pretend I don’t think I am, has helped raise my profile in my profession. That sounds cynical, but I’m not at all cynical about it — it’s given me amazing opportunities to know people and do things that have been hugely satisfying to me. Being on Twitter has made me better at my job, and allowed me to be an advocate for my institution and my field in ways that go beyond self-aggrandizement.
Being so invested in Twitter has helped me, clearly, but it’s also trapped me. I’m just one of millions giving Twitter the content it needs to exist. Obviously, it won’t notice if I leave, but I will lose something important to me. That gives Twitter power and control, and those things are at the heart of my unhappiness with an algorithm-defined timeline.
Following people on Twitter who aren’t like me in various ways, has, I hope and believe, made me a better, more empathetic person. The algorithm will, inevitably, push the marginalized voices out of my awareness. It will promote the old and comfortable over the new and challenging. It will steal from the attention-poor to give to the attention-rich.
When I signed up for Twitter, the deal was simple: you follow someone, you see the things they post in the order they post them. Someone follows you, same thing. This was in stark contrast with Facebook’s top-down approach to what you see, and a key reason I chose to use one and not the other. (The irony of the fact that I’m writing this on Medium, which I experience mostly through algorithmic recommendations, is not lost on me.)
Now Twitter wants to alter the deal, and turn my power to decide into its power to display. I’m angry, but mostly I feel helpless. I want to swear that I’ll quit if it happens, but I’m not sure I can follow through on that threat. I could probably learn to live without the ego-stroking, but it would be miserable to cut myself off from the people who have become friends even if we’ve never met in person.
The best case scenario at this point is that Twitter will allow me to opt-out of algorithmic timelines once and easily. Then I can go back to enjoying how much Twitter empowers me, at least until the next time they decide to alter the deal.