In Defense of the Algorithmic Timeline

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 3 min read

First it was Facebook, then it was Twitter, and just within the past week or two, it was Instagram. Social networks are abandoning the traditional chronological timeline, and it's rubbing some people the wrong way. There are tons of people who are intent on maintaining the unmodified "chron" where the oldest posts are at the bottom and the newest are at the top. I understand why people like this model, but I don't think it scares well nor does it work for how most people use social media. Allow me a few minutes of your time to defend the "algorithmic timeline" that is so derided by my fellow nerds.

Without talking specifics about how well a particular service does of showing me relevant content, let's just take a look at the concept of the algorithmic timeline with Twitter as an example. In the image at the top of this post, I have over 700 unread tweets. Some of them are things I want to see, but most are not that big of a deal if I miss them. Here's what the algorithmic timeline will do for me:

Out of the 700+ tweets that have come in since I was last on Twitter, maybe 15 of them are must-read tweets. I could spend 30 minutes scrolling through all 700 tweets, reading each one to make sure I don't miss anything good, and this is the experience suggested by those who like the chronological timeline.

Personally, I don't have the time or patience to read through that many tweets to filter out those 15 must-reads. With an algorithmic timeline, Twitter can analyze the 700 tweets that have hit my account since I last visited and collect those 15 great tweets right at the top so that I can get to the good stuff right away. Instead of 30 minutes scrolling my timeline, I could get the critical stuff in a minute or less.

This is a much better experience for both the user and for Twitter. It's better for me the user, because I get better content quicker than I did previously. If I just have 2 minutes on my phone when I'm waiting in line at the store, I will be able to make the most of that time.

At first glance it may seem worse for Twitter, since they want to drive engagement, and having someone spend 30 minutes scrolling through their timeline is better than letting them get most of the value in a minute or two. But in fact you will likely drive engagement up because people will have a more positive experience every time they log in because you're giving them better content up front. This positive kick will get you opening the app more often and scrolling past the "good stuff" because you want to see what else is available.

Of course all of this depends on there being a good algorithm to parse out what you want to see right away. I think Twitter does a good job of this with their "While You Were Away" feature that shows you 5-10 tweets that it thinks you would be the most likely to interact with. Their algorithm seems to be based on knowing what accounts you interact with the most, and displaying tweets from them that got more likes/retweets than average. It's a smart implementation, and I find myself replying to these tweets more than anything else in my timeline.

Not everybody agrees that this is the best way to go and they will tell you that an unmodified chronological timeline is the objectively better way to do things, but I think they're wrong. As long as they're able to do it well, I want my social networks to curate the best stuff for me. I don't have the time to obsessively curate my following list to have exactly the right number of posts in my timelines every time, and I'm not going to spend all day reading every damn post in the timeline of each app on my phone.