Your personal Twitter timeline isn’t so personal anymore.
Since its humble beginnings in 2006, Twitter’s timeline has shown a stream of 140-character messages from only the people you’ve chosen to follow (and, starting in 2010, promoted tweets from advertisers). Earlier this week, the social network gave itself permission to display tweets it thinks you want to see — regardless of whether you actually asked to see them.
On Wednesday morning the social media company updated its help page — titled “What’s a Twitter timeline?” — to include a new section, first spotted by Quartz. Your feed now includes tweets from everyone you follow, retweets from those people, the occasional advertisement, and something new:
“Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.”
So far, this policy change has bubbled up into people’s feeds only in the form of tweets that people you follow have marked as favorites. This has raised concerns among some Twitter members who used the fave feature as a way to bookmark something, assuming it was semi-private.
This new policy is the latest in a series of changes over the past year largely focused on making Twitter friendlier to new members. Twitter has changed its design to include larger text and photos, made the profile pictures and popular tweets on individual pages easier to see, added a mute feature, and created the ability to include emoji and multiple photos in one tweet. This dramatic makeover, however, is also rapidly erasing the differences between Twitter and its primary competitor: Facebook.
Any longtime social media user can see the writing on the wall: Twitter’s latest policy change appears to be a step toward transforming your timeline into a news feed like the one provided by Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth social media company. In other words, instead of showing you every single post from the people you follow, Twitter’s feed could morph into a list of select messages curated by a vaguely defined algorithm you can’t control.
This gives more power to the company controlling your timeline than it does to you — which is never a good thing. Tools like Tweetbot and TweetDeck exist for people to search for topics that are relevant to them. If someone wants to see a Twitter conversation on a particular story, like the Oscars, she has all the tools she needs to seek it out.
Instead, Twitter appears to be trying to force-feed us tweets it thinks we’ll click on, possibly as a way to prove to advertisers that it can be just as robust a traffic driver as Facebook. The result, as we recently learned from Wired writer Mat Honan’s piece about liking everything on Facebook, will be a social media network even more dominated by clickbaity headlines, kitten videos, political screeds, and uplifting news stories.
This is not the world Twitter has traditionally reflected, or the one that’s made it a vehicle for spreading important news, like the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. If Twitter begins to edit our streams, pushing out lesser-known sources of information, important, citizen-reported stories like that could very well be lost.
We have reached out to Twitter for comment and will update this story if it responds.