When Buzzfeed reported over the weekend Twitter had plans to introduce an algorithmic feed, the response from the platform's user base was typically hyperbolic. #RIPTwitter became a trending hashtag.

Twitter users are accustomed to seeing tweets appear in real time, with latest updates from accounts they follow materializing as they are posted at the top of a user's feed. This reverse chronological ordering has shaped how users interact with the social network. Popular uses of the platform like tweetstorms and live tweeting require some sort of chronology in order to be coherent.

But social media analysts say that what upsets current users could be the very thing that is needed to rejuvenate the company's anemic user growth. Moreover, employing an algorithm doesn't necessitate all temporality be thrown out with the bathwater.

This is a case where doing what Facebook has done may hold lessons for a platform that is definitely not Facebook. Originally introduced as a reverse chronological platform, Twitter's competitor already uses an algorithmic feed.

"Overall, Twitter needs to make some fundamental changes in its product and offering," says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. "To grow Twitter must appeal to a different type of user, one that isn't as concerned about the real time time nature of tweets but still wants to see relevant content that is timely."

He adds that he has no personal knowledge of Twitter making any changes and is basing his comments on media reports. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has not confirmed that an algorithmic feed is being introduced.

An algorithmic feed could make Twitter more appealing to new users and help to solve its growth problem, says eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

"One of the major problems that casual users have always had is that their feed tends to get very busy if they follow a lot of people, and important posts get lost. If someone you are interested in posted a tweet when you were not actively using Twitter, chances are you would never even see it because it would get pushed down as new tweets came in," she says.

The two analysts acknowledge that Facebook's introduction of a timeline that prioritizes posts with which users are supposedly more likely to engage served a different purpose. Williamson says the shift may have contributed somewhat to user growth, but notes "Facebook hasn't ever been real-time."

The success Facebook has had with going algorithmic shows, in a broader sense, "the value of social networks outside of reverse chronological ordering of content," Blau says.

"If Twitter changes the ordering of their tweets I would not see this as copying Facebook, but an acknowledgment that having that single and only way of presenting content just isn't that important for many users," he says.

Whatever changes Twitter introduces shouldn't be so dramatic as to upset current users, "who are mainly loyal and engaged," emphasizes Blau. Placing more popular tweets at the top of a user's feed does not necessarily mean people won't see content that is relevant and timely.

"I agree that many of Twitter's features are built around the chronology of the timeline, but I don't think that means that an algorithm won't work, or that the two ideas are mutually exclusive,"  he says.

For users still not hot on the idea of Twitter changing its model, there are reasons not to be overly concerned. The Verge reports users may have a choice of whether to opt in to algorithmic feed, as with Facebook. Also, the proposal to move up tweets that will spur greater engagement doesn't differ dramatically from Twitter's current While You Were Away feature.  

Published on: Feb 8, 2016