Twitter’s “while you were away” feature sums up a crucial dilemma

As a number of outlets have reported, Twitter appears to be rolling out its new “while you were away” feature to some users, showing them tweets that the company’s algorithm thinks are important, following through on promises made last year about helping users find relevant content. Sounds fairly straightforward — and for the most part, it is. But at the same time, this feature highlights the dilemma that Twitter faces as it heads into 2015: It has to find more ways of making the service useful for and appealing to newbies, without driving away the die-hard and power users who find such helpful features irritating.

When we wrote about the potential for an algorithmically-enhanced or re-ordered Twitter timeline, many users seemed vehemently opposed to this kind of manipulation — more than 10,000 people said they didn’t want Twitter to muck around with their timeline at all. And the main reason that most critics give is that doing this has the potential to make Twitter more like Facebook, a place where content appears and disappears without warning, based on the workings of a black-box algorithm.

So far, the Twitter feature only highlights things that already exist in a user’s timeline, rather than auto-hiding certain content the way Facebook does. But it’s certainly plausible that Twitter might explore the latter as well, in an attempt to make its content more relevant — after all, that’s why Facebook started doing it, and for some users it probably serves the purpose it was designed for. For others, however, this kind of algorithmic intrusion isn’t just irritating, it’s actually offensive on a fundamental level.

User vs. algorithm

For many power users, a big part of the appeal of Twitter is that they have control over their timeline, who they follow and what they see. Every “enhancement” that the company adds seems to water down this core strength: the promoted tweets and promoted brands that show up all over the place, the tweets from users you don’t follow that get injected into your timeline because you might be interested, the favorites and retweets that are shown to you whether you want them or not.

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As Owen Williams complained in a recent Medium post about Twitter, it feels as though the company doesn’t care about what users want — instead, it seems to care more about meeting whatever metrics its investors want to see, in order to prove it can generate enough revenue to get the stock moving upward again. As Williams put it:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Over the last year I’ve become more and more disenchanted with using it as the company becomes increasingly user-hostile and seemingly only makes moves to improve the product for brands. It feels like Twitter doesn’t fight for us users anymore. It doesn’t foster what makes the service truly great; the people who actually tweet about stuff.”[/blockquote]

But Twitter’s problem is actually deeper than that: it’s not that the company doesn’t care about users any more — it clearly does. Sure, it cares about advertising and other forms of monetization as well, but that’s not where things like the “while you were away” feature are coming from. The point behind such enhancements is that Twitter wants to improve the utility for certain users, primarily the ones who only dip into their timeline now and then, and want to see something useful or interesting. Those are the users who are going to move the needle when it comes to engagement.

Relevance is tricky

And yet, each feature that is designed to appeal to new users seems to irritate and even repel existing users, and that’s potentially a serious issue: those users may not be able to move the needle upwards dramatically, because they are already using Twitter as much as they possibly can (and I include myself in this group). But they can certainly move the needle downwards by pulling away from the network more, or contributing less content. And it’s that content that pulls in more users, or makes them engage more with the service.

The unknown question is whether these users will actually leave, or whether they will simply grumble about the changes without changing their behavior at all, which is what irritated users have tended to do in the past. In fact, Twitter’s entire history (and Facebook’s too, for that matter) is one long example of how a company can screw things up, change things around and even completely fail to work at all without seeing any noticeable decline in user activity. But every “enhancement” that Twitter makes pushes that bar further and further, and raises the risk that it might actually start driving people away.

Pando’s Nathaniel Mott also makes an interesting point in a recent post, which is that promoting relevance or content-recommendation features within Twitter may actually push users towards other services that provide the same kind of thing, such as Nuzzel, Prismatic or Trove. If all users want is to see relevant links or content, they don’t necessarily have to go to Twitter to get that — they just need to use something that ingests their timeline and highlights the good stuff. And so far at least, Twitter has yet to show that it’s any better at doing this than those external services are.