Losing control

Twitter added a new control to the home timeline recently: "latest tweets". It's a toggle that let's you switch between "Home" (ranked or algorithmic timeline) and "Latest" (reverse-chronological list).

The algorithmic timeline has always been controversial, both inside the company and out. To account for that, it was rigorously tested over months and months. The results are unequivocal: our users like more tweets, read more tweets, and use Twitter more, when they have the ranked timeline.

For new users who have subscribed to a few spammy accounts (for example, news), the ranked timeline reduces the effect of the overactive accounts, letting the quieter accounts show through. For power users, the ranked timeline helps cut through the many accounts you follow to see the more valuable tweets, surface new accounts to follow, and conversations you're interested in.

If the ranked timeline is better for everyone, why is it controversial? Why can it be so unpopular?

It's a long-standing issue at Twitter that we don't really know what the magic is. We know why people use Uber: they need to get from A to B. Why do people use Twitter? A whole bunch of reasons. Why does it succeed where others did not? Unclear. One of the most successful initiatives in recent years has been defining the role of Twitter: to provide news. This doesn't mean that we're dismissing other uses, simply that we can focus on optimising for news.

One thing that distinguishes Twitter from news tv, from newspapers, from Facebook, from Google, is the ability to choose who you follow and control your experience. You know why you're seeing the tweets on the screen: you chose to follow those accounts.

For the ranked timeline, this is no longer true. You've lost control over the experience. And with that, you've lost ownership in the product. Previously you were free to make the Twitter experience your own. Now, someone else is changing that. It doesn't matter if the tweets are better or not, the feeling of ownership is lost. Was that part of the magic?

Is that why Twitter added a toggle for "latest"? Actually no. We added it to recognise that sometimes you are following a live sporting event and need the tweets to be in chronological order. That's why the toggle resets after a few hours; when the event is over.

Twitter isn't alone in pushing a feature that claims to know what you want better than you do.

Apple famously design their hardware and software without user research. They hire experts and want to solve the issues users haven't thought about yet, not the issues users are talking about (which tend to be top-of-mind). The removal of headphone jacks, or the keyboard, or the touchbar, are classic examples.

Facebook's News Feed has been ranked for a long time, which has led to accusations of intentional (or unintentional) political (and emotional) manipulation of its users.

Apple and Facebook are some of the most successful companies in the world, suggesting that taking control away from users does not hurt the bottom line.

It'll be interesting to see if this continues to be a winning formula, or whether new competitors offering to return a sense of ownership in the product will win through.