It seems that after years of independence — discovering new friends, upending the system, and asserting our non-traditional values — we’re ready to move back in with our parents.
Twitter, which has mostly avoided the algorithm in favor of a reverse chronological stream of information, hinted that all users will get a curated list of tweets in the future. Currently, users who aren’t logged in get a version, and those who are logged in see Highlights. The next day Evan Williams argued that the data volume has exploded since Twitter’s founding that users need information organized by algorithm for sanity.
So, I guess it turns out that after years of celebrating Twitter for it’s democratization of information, we’re asking for rules, order and boundaries. By asking Twitter to use tools to choose which tweets we see — even if these selections are made by carefully formulated computer programs — audiences are abandoning some of the opportunity to make choices about what’s important to know in this world. They’re asking for editors to choose what’s on A1. We’re willing to put the gatekeeping power back in the hands of institutions and selected elites. The powerful this time around won’t be the local newspaper; it’s going to be organizations that hold the power of algorithms.
Facebook is already seen as a gatekeeper for its computer-automated decisions about what information appears at the top of your newsfeed. Part of what motivates those decisions is profit. This was true too for old media, of course. But we rebelled against that. We demanded the ability to recognize important information. We asserted that those in power were making the wrong decisions, and said we could do better.
To some extent, it’s easy to argue we have done better on our own. While there still an undeniable and pervasive influence of traditional media companies on the national conversation, research has highlighted the times Twitter turned our head to what’s happening when other outlets weren’t looking. And, this year’s protests have provided plenty of anecdotal examples.
Twitter’s gatekeepers thus far, though, were interested people who other users handed power to by following, retweeting and directing mentions. An analysis of the spread of political hashtags on Twitter showed that ordinary people who are committed to these causes were able to raise awareness to their issue. That’s democracy. That’s what I want in my social media platform.
Josh Elman argued that, instead, Twitter should give users tools to organize the information for themselves.
That’s something I can get behind. Honestly, just Monday I was scrolling through Twitter on my phone for information on Baltimore when I screamed “I need my columns.” TweetDeck is always open when I’m on my desktop while columns beautifully organized by hashtag, search words, and specialized lists move at varying (but comprehensible) speeds. Those tools help me keep law and order on my Twitter without an algorithm. And, while doing that hands the power to elites and institutions, at least they’re the ones I choose.