Twitter’s Chronological Timeline Will Save Us From Ourselves

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When I woke up today, the first thing I saw on Twitter was people desperately warning that something gross was trending. Whatever you do, they agreed, do NOT click on trending topics, which appeared to mostly have to do with video games: Nintendo, Mario Kart, the beloved character Toad.

I braced myself, figuring that, because of Twitter’s algorithm, whatever was grossing people out so much would soon be inserted into my timeline no matter what I or the people I follow did. That’s what usually happens.

And yet, thanks to a change Twitter made yesterday, as I kept scrolling, I saw only the warnings and jokes about Toad that I didn’t understand. Twitter wasn’t serving me up the source, the tweet that started it all. Finally, confused and frustrated, I clicked on the trending topics, because, really, I’m only human! I had to know.

What I found I wish I could unsee. Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, claims in her new book that President Trump’s nether regions resemble Toad, Princess Peach’s most loyal Mushroom Kingdom citizen. Now I, too, have to bleach my eyes.

On the bright side, it was empowering to have to check. It felt like the old days, back before Twitter abandoned a purely chronological timeline in 2016. And that’s because late last night, Twitter made a change. It gave us back the option to have a truly chronological timeline. While I was sleeping, Twitter had reverted my feed to one that delivered tweets in order, from only the people I follow.

Imagine that! Algorithm skeptics, like myself, had been asking for that for two years. Instead, to appease us, Twitter allowed you to turn off the “Show the Best Tweets First” option in your settings. If you did, you got a mostly chronological feed, but Twitter would still insert some tweets out of order and from people you didn’t follow, which it decided were relevant based on how you interacted with tweets on the site. Many people—myself included—hated those algorithmic intrusions, but it was better than nothing.

Twitter’s algorithm watches what we click on, who we follow, what we reply to, who we block. In a moment like this morning, it likely knew that I would eventually want to know about Daniels’ quote.

As of last night, unchecking that box now means a lot more. If you had it unchecked already, like I did, or uncheck it now, it will actually get rid of all algorithmic behavior and revert to a truly chronological timeline. For now, you still have to dive into your settings to opt in, but Twitter is testing the design and location for an easy-to-toggle switch so you can move between an algorithmic curation and an in-order timeline whenever you want. It’s possible the setting will be either in the profile dashboard, where you find your likes and moments currently, or somewhere above your timeline. It’s not clear yet whether the algorithmic timeline will stay as the default, though it seems likely.

Not knowing about the change, I logged on this morning and assumed that I would eventually be bombarded with exactly what people were warning me to avoid. But I wasn’t. I saw only tweets from people I follow. And it turns out, they are blessed beings who made jokes about Toad, but spared their followers the details.

The fact that I then went and clicked on the trending topics anyway, though, underscores why Twitter has been so attached to the algorithmic timeline. It thinks it knows us. And it does. Twitter’s algorithm watches what we click on, who we follow, what we reply to, who we block. In a moment like this morning, it likely knew that I would eventually want to know about Daniels’ quote.

But the reason we are so against that algorithmic sorting is because it takes our agency away. What if today I didn’t want to know? What if today I just want to see the things the people I have chosen explicitly to follow are saying? It’s infuriating to make choices—who to follow, who to retweet, when to look at the site—only to have Twitter decide (even if it’s correct!) what we might really want to see. That anticipation feeds into our worst behaviors. Having to click on the Toad trend to find out what was going on forced me to be intentional about it: Do I want to know? I asked myself. Ugh, yes, my baser self replied. A chronological timeline is a chance to save ourselves—if we choose to.

Twitter is trying to give people more control. According to a spokesperson, the company has data that shows people find a timeline with the best tweets at the top more relevant and useful, but the company hears those who want to see the latest tweets first.

The spokesperson says Twitter envisions a scenario soon where users will be able to quickly change between versions. If it’s the Emmys or a natural disaster, say, where we just want to know what’s happening as it happens, the spokesperson said, Twitter imagines people using the chronological Timeline. At other times they expect people to keep the algorithm on.

Additionally, Twitter announced Tuesday that on the algorithmic Timeline, you’ll be able to provide feedback on every tweet you see. Previously, you were only able to give feedback on tweets that Twitter inserted into your Timeline from people you don’t follow. Now, for every tweet you see—even from people you follow—you’ll have a dropdown option to say “Show Less Often.” From there, according to a Twitter representative, you’ll be able to give feedback like “This isn’t relevant to me,” or “Show fewer tweets from this person.” Both are ways to take a more active role in curating your feed without actually muting or unfollowing someone. You can actively teach the algorithm what you like.

Your feedback, the Twitter representative said, is what finally pushed the company to roll out the chronological timeline. And people really wanted that feature. A month ago, a Twitter workaround went viral that made your timeline chronological by using the search function. People ate it up. A company representative said that workaround was not the inspiration for this change, though Twitter did take notice of how excited so many people were about it.

Whatever it was that got Twitter to give us this option, we’re happy about it. Twitter is a site beloved by its users, and yet it’s also a source of deep existential sorrow and frustration. The more the company can do to give people what they want—particularly when what they want is control over their own information streams—the better.

Now, about that edit button.

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