Twitter Is a Cocktail Party That I'm Not Invited To

As I go through my daily routine, I find myself sort of out of phase with a lot of the Internet. My peak online hours are from about six to ten in the morning, Eastern US time. That's when I get up, have breakfast, and then go to Starbucks to write for a few hours.

This means that most of the other people awake and active on my social media feeds are in Europe or Australia. And my standard writing time ends right around the time things start to heat up in the US. I do continue to have access to the Internet through the afternoon, of course, but unless I have a deadline coming up, I'm often doing stuff that doesn't involve sitting in front of a computer (and if I do have a deadline coming up, I shut down social media to concentrate on work). And evenings are terrible-- I spend a lot of weeknights running SteelyKid to various activities, and even when I'm not doing that, our dinner and bedtime routines don't leave me much space to participate. By nine or ten pm, I'm completely wiped out.

As a result, I find Twitter a deeply frustrating medium. Twitter is mostly about conversation, but its deliberately ephemeral nature means that you can really only converse effectively with other people who are online and active at the same time you are. And the peak activity times for Twitter conversations are at times when I'm not regularly available because of the way my work and family schedules are arranged. In those peak hours, I'm only checking in intermittently-- a few times an hour, usually-- and as a result, I miss tons of stuff.

I started thinking about this the other day, when there was a big kerfuffle over Twitter's plan to introduce an "algorithmic" timeline that would depart from the current strictly-chronological display to highlight some posts from the past. This predictably led to wailing and gnashing of teeth among Twitter power users (and it's since been walked back a little), who declared that it would be the end of Twitter as we know it. Personally, though, I think it might be a good thing, which led to this lengthy tweetstorm, which you'll notice was posted at 8am on a Saturday, because that's when I have time to be on Twitter...

The standard line is that any deviation from strictly chronological Twitter will hopelessly break things in one of a variety of ways, but this is largely predicated on the assumption that the algorithm will be the stupidest and most obnoxious thing you could dream up. But, really, it's not that hard to do a better job than most of the people outraged about the idea seem to think.

Take, for example, Facebook. Facebook famously switched to an algorithmic timeline a while back, and most of the anti-algorithm arguments feature dark mutterings about how this will make Twitter just like Facebook. To an intermittent social-media user like me, though, Facebook is in many ways better than Twitter. I have slightly more Facebook friends than people I follow on Twitter (about 750 vs just under 600), but Facebook does a better job of highlighting stuff I want to see. I regularly find tweets from Rhett Allain because he has his feed mirrored to Facebook, and the Facebook algorithm knows I like his stuff and makes sure I see it. On Twitter, in the middle of the day, his tweets get lost in a vast flood of stuff that I don't get to check very often. At the same time, if I'm actively on Facebook for a relatively long time, the feed I see is pretty much chronological.

The other insinuation is that under an algorithmic scheme only stuff from famous tweeters will get shown, or paid ads. But again, I'm not convinced, because Twitter already has an algorithmic feature, the "While You Were Away" box that pops up when you go several hours without checking in. That was roundly condemned when it was introduced for basically the same reasons, but again, I find that it does a good job of highlighting stuff I wouldn't see otherwise. And it's not just getting me massively-retweeted stuff from clickbait outlets. One of the people who pops up most frequently in my "While You Were Away" tab is a guy with under 400 followers, because I like a good deal of his stuff, and the algorithm knows that. I find that feature one of the most useful things Twitter has done recently, and would be happy to have it show up more regularly. And given that they do that well, I'm not especially worried about what would happen with a wider use of algorithms.

Of course, the fundamental issue isn't anything about practical implementation, but rather that the current power users like Twitter as it is, because it works well for them. Which, you know, good for them, but it should be noted that this is fundamentally pretty exclusionary. That is, the way Twitter is set up right now works really well for a particular set of people, who have the sort of jobs and family arrangements such that they're online and actively engaged at the same time as their friends. It's big among journalists, for example, because their whole business is about being connected, and science Twitter is dominated by folks in fields whose research mostly has them sitting in front of a computer already. If you're not lucky enough to be in that particular demographic stratum, though, the current experience of Twitter is much less attractive.

I've heard Twitter described as a virtual cocktail party before, and it's a decent metaphor-- lots of people hanging around, engaged in conversation and witty banter. I would note, though, that the usual analogy doesn't go far enough. For an intermittent user like myself, Twitter is like a really cool cocktail party that I'm not invited to. It's a bit like the party is spilling out of bar into the lobby of my hotel-- I catch snatches of cool conversations as I make my way to the elevator, but I miss most of it because I have other stuff to do. Every now and then, I get a chance to hang out in the bar for a bit, and that's great, but mostly I'm getting second-hand reports and that's just not the same.

And it should be noted that I am, in fact, relatively fortunate as such things go. I do have a few hours in the morning where I'm able to participate, and I sometimes get the chance to do more. In the cocktail party metaphor, I'm at least staying in the same hotel with most of the partygoers. The folks in other hotels don't get even that much, which is why so many people continue to not see the point of Twitter.

The kinds of changes Twitter is talking about making could, if implemented well, make the medium more accessible for those who are currently shut out. It won't completely open things up-- it's always going to be a conversational medium, and conversation will always require time for engagement-- but good algorithms could make it easier for people who aren't already part of the conversation to see why those who are find it useful and enjoyable.

Of course, as it is, there's very much a "cool kids" dynamic to Twitter, and a lot of the reaction is best understood in that light. The experience of Twitter that the current power users enjoy is a relatively exclusive one, and Twitter is choosing to pursue broadening access to the service over enhancing the experience of those who already use it heavily. Nothing I've heard described is going to shut out anybody who's already in, though-- at most, they're going to be inconvenienced to a small fraction of the degree that non-power-users are already inconvenienced.

Most of the Bad Things people trot out as results of algorithmic timelines are things that I already put up with as an intermittent Twitter user. Bits of conversation will appear out of context? If you only check in a few times an hour, you already get that (and because otherwise very smart people can't figure out how to properly thread conversations, there's often no good way to reconstruct what's going on, but that's another rant). You might miss things posted by your friends? That happens now, given the huge flood of stuff that comes in at peak hours-- as mentioned above, I have to rely on Facebook's algorithms to rescue a lot of stuff that gets lost in the noise on Twitter. Your stuff might just vanish without the right people seeing it? That already happens to those of us who are out-of-phase with peak Twitter activity.

All of these negative features are annoyances that people who aren't on the inside already have to put up with. And given sensibly designed algorithms-- which my experience with Facebook and "While You Were Away" suggests are entirely possible-- these can be minimized. Done right, they have the potential to make Twitter more attractive and enjoyable for a lot of people who don't currently get anything out of it.

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I'm not sure about those 'sensibly designed algorithms' - what I see on Facebook is usually nothing like what my friends have posted. Infrequent posters are submerged in the stream and I haven't found a way to surface them yet.

The solution appears to me quite simple - add a tab for the algorithmic view, and allow both views. However that will interfere with the monetization of our eyeballs, so will never happen in Facebook at least.

"A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision"
is as much a fantasy now as when Steely Dan first sang it..

I don't understand twitter. It's like people seem to be constantly yelling random things at me, and if they yell two-three times in a row I put them on mute, and that's that. I find the 140 character limit makes conversations impossible. It's good for sharing links, for everything else I use facebook or my blog or G+ if it must be (not paying much attention to this).

Having said that though, statistically the vast majority of my followers both on twitter and on my blog are based in the US and in Canada, so I too miss the peak period because it's in the middle of the night for me. I'm also the kind of person who leaves parties early, so I suppose it fits well enough ;) Honestly, I think you spend too much time thinking about what you might be missing on twitter :p

The difference between Facebook and Twitter seems to be that Facebook wants me to follow all sorts of random people I've never heard of but cannot imagine why I might want to follow while Twitter wants me to follow all sorts of people I have vaguely heard of but cannot imagine why I might want to follow. Every day the two services send me long lists of names that I sometimes scan and sometimes ignore.

Now and then a friend emails me a note telling me to check out something on Facebook or Twitter, so I do. Maybe I'm old fashioned. I still have friends who mail me VHS tapes of television shows I should watch.