Social Media

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Is Twitter about to break itself, and what should we do about it?

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Today, in the late afternoon, it all kicked off on Twitter. Was it despair at further appalling news seeping from the Middle East? Or fury over another catastrophic governmental decision? Of course not. It was the revelation that Twitter itself is preparing to change its service.

It's always like this. When the page layouts were re-formatted about a year ago, the ire of users was barely contained, so negative was the impact on their lives. Various other tweaks (such as the conversation groupings) have also attracted an outpouring of rage. It's as inevitable as night. So what is this major overhaul inspiring such indignation? Well, first we should be clear that it may actually not happen at all. All this fear and anxiety is actually based on a comment Twitter CFO, Anthony Noto, made at a Q & A session. Last year, the company mentioned they wouldn't rule out the possibility of random, relevant tweets in timelines. Now, Noto has said he's actively interested in the idea. But no launch date or anything like that.

So what does this mean for the Twitter user? IF it goes ahead, the function would place 'relevant' tweets into one's timeline when there were no updates from those one follows. The relevancy would be decided by an algorithm - based on followers, followings and users' own tweets. And that is pretty much it.

"People are seemingly unaware of their place in social networking."

Of course, as with any activity over which people obsess, change is viewed with enormous suspicion. In the last hour I have seen people threatening to leave the network over this possibility. People, it must be said, are quite strange. They are also seemingly unaware of their place in social networking. A very smart person has pointed out that social media users are not customers, they are the product. He was talking about Facebook, but the observation can be applied to Twitter just as effectively.

If you use one of these platforms you will have noticed something important. You've never paid to do so. Consequently, in no way can you be said to be a customer. Arguably, you're a 'member' but that is looking at the telescope from the wrong end. Twitter's ability to make profit is still far from certain. Nevertheless, if and when it does, it will do so because it is able to deliver people to advertisers and marketeers. Therefore, it is quite obvious we, the users, are actually the commodity. And the more commodity Twitter can serve up, the better their revenues will be. This doesn't solely apply to volume, but also to engagement. Data showing Twitter users heavily engaged in a particular subject, will make associated advertisers more enthusiastic. When the user selects the subjects with which he or she engages, there's little or no control for Twitter. Using this algorithm could change all that.

You, we, they may consider this an intrusion, a dilution of the experience or a downright liberty - it doesn't really matter, because Twitter doesn't answer to us. It's free to use, and anybody is free to join or leave at any point. What's more, because there is no charge for the service, Twitter has little or no obligation to preserve any part of its function. Should Twitter become an online auction site for fruit and vegetables overnight, its user base would have no real moral or commercial basis for complaint.

So, if you are one of the offended masses, complain away; knock yourself out. Funnily enough, Twitter is a very handy place to vent such frustrations. But it's always worth remembering, that you owe Twitter nothing, and equally, Twitter owes you exactly the same in return.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant.

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