What if I told you that your Twitter timeline doesn’t have to be filled with algorithmically selected tweets from three days ago? Actually, it’s been like that for a while — Twitter made a reverse-chronological timeline available in September. But now it’s taking away the permanent option to choose how your timeline is displayed and replacing it with a “Sparkle Button.”
Among the top requests for changes to Twitter is for it to return the timeline to the way its founding fathers intended: newest tweets at the top. That means when someone I follow tweets, it should show up in my feed, and when the next person I follow tweets, it should be the next thing that shows up in my timeline. Twitter has followed in the footsteps of Facebook and gradually introduced older tweets you may have missed and popular tweets that you might like into the mix. The social media world accepts as gospel that the algorithm-driven feed is the best way to increase engagement, but Twitter’s key value is that it tells us what’s happening right this second.
Back in September, Twitter put the power to take back control of the timeline in users’ hands. Admittedly, the changes one had to make in settings were not the most intuitive process, and many people may have not known the option existed. Which is why the iOS update Twitter announced today is, at least in part, a welcome change.
In an update rolling out to the Twitter app today, users will see the “Sparkle Button” in the top-right corner. Click it and the timeline will switch between Home (algorithm) and Latest Tweets (reverse-chronological). You’ll still be seeing the mixed-up Home timeline first, but you can get the old school feed shot straight into your web-addled brain with the click of a button.
We regret to inform you that there’s a downside to this. We asked Twitter if this will affect the option in settings that gave users a permanent choice for how they prefer to browse. A spokesperson pointed us to a tweet thread from Twitter’s product VP, Keith Coleman.
So today, the ✨ is coming to everyone on iOS and will be available on Android & web in the next few weeks. No longer do you have to go into settings to switch between Home and the latest Tweets. It’s right there in your timeline. (And actually it’s no longer in settings at all.)
— Keith Coleman ???????????? (@kcoleman) December 18, 2018
The update hasn’t rolled out to those of us in the Gizmodo office yet, so we can’t verify it for ourselves, but Coleman is saying the option in the latest versions’ settings is now gone for iOS users and will disappear for everyone else in the next few weeks. It’s genuinely great that Twitter is putting an option front-and-center on its minimal interface, and a lot more people will probably get to take advantage of their choice of timeline. But for those of us who’ve been free for months, it sucks to lose the set-it-and-forget-it toggle.
Also, Twitter has more algorithms for you. As you use the feature, it will pay attention to which timeline you prefer and gradually display your favoured experience for longer. In other words, you’ll get the algo-timeline to start, and if you like the linear option more, you’ll see it for longer periods before it switches back to what Twitter really wants.
Coleman’s point that “people sometimes wonder how algorithms affect what they see in the apps they use,” and this change making the difference more clear, is well taken. He’s not wrong at all, and we love having options. Specifically, we love having the option to go reverse-chronological for good. It seems a few too many people may have loved that option and Twitter’s taking a step back with a middle way.
This is one of those changes that you can’t get too up-in-arms about, but make no mistake that Twitter is boxing users back in with an illusion of freedom. And it’s grabbing an opportunity to do more A-B testing with eager guinea pigs. Maybe if enough people constantly switch to the good, reverse-chron timeline Twitter will get the point. That would be very un-Twitter-like, but stranger things have happened.