Twitter, which has been alternately scrambling around reassuring users it is working to address its well-known trolling problem and fumbling doing just that, briefly tested a feature suggesting who users should unfollow.
Per Slate, however, the intent behind the project does not appear to have been to get users to chill the hell out by unfollowing others they hate. Instead, the briefly-tested feature suggested unfollowing other users that they didn’t engage with very much.
A Twitter spokesperson sent Slate the following statement:
We know that people want a relevant Twitter timeline. One way to do this is by unfollowing people they don’t engage with regularly. We ran an incredibly limited test to surface accounts that people were not engaging with to check if they’d like to unfollow them.
It isn’t clear whether the test, which Twitter characterised to Slate as minimal and available to only a few users, was successful. Some users who noticed the feature appeared to think it was minimally useful or even unhelpful.
Twitter is now suggesting accounts to UNFOLLOW!
— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) August 29, 2018
top people I should apparently unfollow? Thanks, twitter... pic.twitter.com/Uiyn5kApTS
— Tim Fernholz (@TimFernholz) August 29, 2018
In theory, suggested unfollows could help minimise clutter — without the use of Twitter’s official dashboard Tweetdeck or a third-party app, it’s pretty easy for users to get lost in the default site or app’s fairly unmanageable follow lists. It could also help prune individual users’ timelines of posts from others they simply don’t care about.
In general, it’s the kind of incremental thing that some users will notice, others may not, and probably wouldn’t have a huge impact on the site.
On the other hand, Donald Trump has been eagerly shepherding his flock of true believers into a crusade against tech companies he believes are censoring right-wingers, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. For Twitter, this has been a big headache. Trump promoted a conspiracy theory that the site was “SHADOW BANNING” conservatives after it made minor tweaks to in-platform search results, and US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused it of doing the same after seemingly misunderstanding his own privacy settings.
So it’s easy to see how manufactured outrage over this minor and entirely opt-in tweak could become another goddamn thing that is frankly exhausting to even think about.
As Slate noted, data from the unfollow tool could also be used to help cultivate the algorithm-ranked feed users now see when logging in. That feed is designed to boost the engagement Twitter has been desperately seeking, though it perhaps encourages some of the worst echo-chamber behaviour on the site.