The average person spends approximately two hours on social media a day. But unless you are a software engineer, programer or something of that nature, you probably have never thought of the inner workings behind your feed. These inner workings are algorithms. Each social media platform has one, varying slightly but with the same goal; to keep you as engaged by providing them with content you enjoy.
What is an Algorithm?
According to Khan Academy, an algorithm is a set of steps taken to accomplish a task. This can be as simple as your daily morning commute or making your favorite sandwich. When applying this idea to social media, the algorithm is a set of steps a computer program takes to accomplish tasks. Each and every algorithm is different and has its own purpose to please users by gathering their interests and personalizing the experience.
Prior to 2016, Twitter would format your feed into chronological order. The the most recent tweets from those you follow appeared at the top. The new algorithm is meant to provide a more personalized experience. Tweets that twitter believes you may be interested in are placed at the top of your timeline in no particular order. These hand-picked tweets are listed under a section titled “While you were away.”
How is the algorithm determined?
According to blog author Christina Newberry, this is the most important feature. Every time you click on a tweet, regardless if you retweet or like it, you are engaging. Twitter tries to display tweets of accounts you engage with or similar accounts you do not follow. Liking or retweeting will more easily signal to the algorithm what you would like to see more of . More importantly, tweets that have very high engagement are prioritized. Since many people are interacting with a particular tweet, the algorithm predicts you may too. Also, accounts that your followers interact with will occasionally appear on your timeline. You will know which users liked or retweeted a tweet; for example, at the top of the tweet it will say “Mark Hamill liked.”
The algorithm has the ability to process the hours you are most active on twitter and your engagement patterns during those times. With that data, the algorithm then has the ability to display similar tweets when you are connected. Also, if you have not been active on twitter for a lengthy amount of time, your personalized timeline will reflect that and show you tweets from days ago.
Twitter provides a variety of different media. There are pictures, videos, gifs, links to websites, as well as links to newspaper and magazine articles. The more frequently you are to engage with a certain type of media, the more likely you are to see it. This further allows Twitter to be versatile and attract a variety of ages and interests. For example, someone may primarily use Twitter to follow their favorite news sources and stay updated on current events. With the algorithm, these news articles are now at the top of their timeline rather than the possibility of the user not seeing the article because it was posted five hours ago. The average user is not scrolling through five hours worth of tweets, especially when they are not even interested in the majority.
By using your approximate location, the algorithm will not only be able to notify you of national and regional trends/events, but also local ones. Also, topics of popular discussion in your area will be displayed. While a majority of users have their location services on, this can easily be turned off on most devices. Therefore, this part of the algorithm is not applicable to all users.
While similar algorithms have been used on other social media sites such as Facebook , when Twitter announced the release of their algorithm there was serious backlash from their users. Those in opposition advocated the beauty of Twitter was its instantaneous communication features. They believed the algorithm would take all of that away, changing Twitter completely. The trending hashtag #RIPTwitter was spreading like wildfire over the network. CEO Jack Dorsey used Twitter to reassure users that the network was not ruined and that it was just being improved to become even more “Twitter-y.” Another possible reason why people were not favorable of the change is because most humans are uncomfortable with anything having the ability to read their mind, especially a computer. One article questions ,“How could a matrix style flow of 1s and 0s accurately learn your styles and tastes?” Humans do not like to be told of their tastes and preferences, but rather discover them on their own. If they are truly opposed to the algorithm, they have the free will to turn it off altogether and resort back to the original chronological timeline.
According to Twitter’s help center, to turn off the algorithm on your iPhone one can simply
- In the top menu, tap your profile icon.
- Tap Settings and privacy.
- Tap Content preferences.
- Under Timeline and next to Show me the best Tweets first, drag the slider to turn it off.
Effects of the Algorithm
Looking at the graph below, one can see that in 2015 the number of Twitter users were not increasing as rapidly as they did in the past. Social media Today suggests, “The ideal time to implement an algorithm is right at that point when engagement is starting to plateau.” That is exactly what Twitter did. Since the implementation, Twitter users have grown by 10% and although there was stark vocal opposition, less than 2% of users have opted out of the algorithm timeline. Twitter’s complex manager stated “ Not only are people spending more time reading, favoriting, and retweeting as a result, but they’re actually tweeting more themselves — an outcome that surprised Twitter’s own product managers. “Every possible engagement and attention metric went up” when the algorithm took effect last year.
Prior to the algorithm, users only saw a fraction of what aspects of Twitter attracted them, easily losing interest. This algorithm has revitalized Twitter to provide the best user experience possible and expand its audience. Users now have the opportunity to connect with new sources while still engaging in live conversation, allowing Twitter to fulfill a variety of facets in one’s life. It is no longer just for teenagers and millennials, it now provides for everyone .