Twitter knows best — at least it hopes it does.
The social network started surfacing tweets this weekend that users never actually said they wanted to see, a strategy intended to introduce users to new content they wouldn’t otherwise discover.
Twitter is showing users tweets that have been favorited by those they follow — meaning you may soon see tweets others didn’t consciously elect to pass along. Twitter is also surfacing tweets from accounts you may not follow, but others in your network do.
Typically, Twitter only shows you tweets from users you don’t follow under two circumstances — either someone you do follow retweeted them, or the tweet was promoted (i.e. it’s an ad). With Twitter’s new experiment, favoriting a tweet may now work like a retweet, passing it along to your followers.
The clear motivation is Twitter’s plan to expand its core user base, the group of people who check Twitter regularly. The company already works hard to show users all the content they could see on the platform, a real challenge particularly with new users who aren’t familiar with the service.
It recommends users for you to follow and offers trending topics in the hope you’ll look into the most popular conversations taking place at any given time. Users are notified when their specific networks are engaging around a certain topic, too. In September, Twitter started alerting users whenever a handful of people they follow favorite or retweet the same tweet, or if a few of them suddenly follow a new person.
Twitter’s message behind all this: Look at all the cool stuff on Twitter you didn’t even know existed.
A major hangup with this weekend’s experiment, however, is how it changes the functionality of one of Twitter’s most visible features, the Favorite. Twitter users fave tweets for any number of reasons. Sometimes a fave serves as a bookmark, encouraging you to read something later; sometimes it means you appreciate a tweet, but don’t want to comment; as Re/code’s Peter Kafka points out, sometimes a fave is sarcastic.
If they stick with this I will have to dump the “bookmarking fav” and the “don’t want to say anything out loud fav” and “sarcastic fav”
— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) August 17, 2014
No matter why you fave a tweet, it may soon work more like an endorsement, surfacing that tweet for others you followed. For some, the experiment means they’ll need to re-evaluate how they use the service. It’s a change that will likely anger a portion of Twitter’s user base, those who are particular about whom they follow and who won’t appreciate new, unwanted tweets in their timelines.
Twitter didn’t provide an explanation for the new feature, but the company is known for experimenting often to see what works. It’s possible the feature may slowly fade away. It’s also possible, if it increases user engagement, that it may stick around for good.
Sometimes change requires a company to show users what they want before they know they want it. It’s a strategy Facebook uses with its News Feed algorithm. Now it’s Twitter’s turn to put it to the test.