Twitter is having an identity crisis. While it's been grabbing design elements from Facebook for a while now, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the Code Conference on Wednesday that the network is experimenting with algorithms to highlight the tweets it thinks you want to read, instead of just giving you everything from everybody you follow.
That sounds like News Feed, which is the worst part of Facebook by far. And it would be a huge mistake for Twitter to replicate that.
Publish or perish
Twitter isn't really a social network; it's a publishing platform. If you have 1,000 followers, it's like you have 1,000 subscribers to your feed of 140-character posts, and every time you post, you know that message will reach all of them. Whether they read it or just skip over it in favor of something more recent is out of your hands, but you can rest assured that Twitter will at least show it to them.
With Facebook, that's not the case. TechHive has roughly 11,000 followers on Facebook. All those people opted in to read what TechHive has to say, but Facebook's algorithms mean that each of our posts reaches just a fraction of those fans. As I write this, one of our most popular posts from Wednesday reached 616 people. Facebook declined to clutter up the News Feeds of our other 10K-plus fans with our content, instead serving them status updates, vacation photos, and ads--whatever the algorithms thought they'd be most likely to interact with.
If TechHive can get more of our followers to like, comment on, and share the posts they do see, those numbers will go up, and Facebook is always willing to let us expand our reach by "promoting" (read: advertising) individual posts. But a publishing platform like Twitter or Tumblr should really treat every post the same.
Now Twitter's current firehose approach can get overwhelming if you follow more than a couple hundred accounts and if those accounts tweet frequently. I prefer to think of Twitter not as a firehose, but as a river where I can come sit for a while (maybe in an Adrirondack chair) and check out whatever tweets are floating past me at the time. The water keeps flowing when I'm not there, but I generally skip whatever was tweeted when I wasn't paying attention. If I really want to see every tweet from certain accounts, I can add those accounts to a Twitter list that's smaller and thus easier to stay current with. Or I can use an IFTTT receipe to send them somewhere less firehosey.
Twitter is worried about its growth, a more important topic now that it's a public company. Twitter's recent behavior seems to suggest that it's decided that becoming more like Facebook will make it more accessible to newbies who might be confused by the RTs and MTs and @replies and hashtags. And maybe a more Facebookish way to read Twitter could work if it's opt-in or offered in a separate app experience. Facebook Paper, for example, dramatically changes News Feed's design while adding human-curated feeds of trending news items. But it's a separate app, so no one is forced to use it or abandon Facebook altogether.
Multiple apps could reach users who want different things without unnecessarily complicating or cluttering up the experience of classic Twitter--or, let's face it, ruin Twitter completely. If the company doesn't want to splinter users off into multiple apps, it should hide any kind of filtered experience in a separate tab or make it opt-in across the board or let us specify accounts from which we want to get everything.
Some of us like the firehose.