Twitter Starts to Change the Central Logic of Its Service

The company is now showing users tweets from accounts they don't follow. That’s a bigger deal than it seems.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

When will Twitter no longer be Twitter?

This week, the company tested a change to its core product that could alter the service in a small but important way. According to Mashable, Twitter is altering the timeline of a small number of users, so that they see tweets from accounts they don’t follow.

Right now, users only see tweets for three reasons: They’re from an account that user follows; they were retweeted by an account that user follows; or they’re an ad. Now, a user might see tweets from an account that someone whom they follow follows, or a tweet that someone they follow favorited.

I can independently confirm this news because I am one of the users they’re testing on. Earlier this week, I was flicking through my Twitter timeline and found something odd: a tweet from a user I’d never seen before. A small line of text above the tweet informed me that it was there because a friend of mine favorited it.

This new feature seems a big deal, because it alters the central conceit of Twitter. Right now, users only only see tweets from users you follow. This is seemingly the feature that made Twitter Twitter. As Mashable found, users already appear annoyed to be seeing tweets of ambiguous origin.

But users already see tweets from users they don’t follow. These tweets are ads. Twitter already accepts money to show users tweets from brands and personalities that they don’t follow, and while this method of display-ads-for-Twitter may frustrate users, but it’s the path the company has chosen.

No, this feature strikes me as a big deal because it breaks something that may seem less pressing: the fave. As The Atlantic has previously documented, users hit the fave button for many reasons. A fave can mean “I agree,” “This made me laugh,” or “good chat.” Often, the only two users aware of a fave are the faver and the favee.

There have long been ways to see other user’s faves. The Discover tab in the company’s official mobile app, for instance, lists all the faves a certain user has made that day. But by and large, other people’s faves didn’t just pop up on your screen.

By transforming what a fave does, this feature fundamentally changes what a fave is. Users will have to adjust, and that process will exact communal costs. That’s fine—software changes, and social software is no different.

Back in April, Adrienne LaFrance and I wrote a eulogy for Twitter. We argued not that the service was dead, but that it was almost completely changed from when we began to use it, shaped by a mixture of community and interface shifts that had altered its feel entirely. This is exactly the kind of feature we were talking about.

Twitter remains indispensable. I tried to take a complete vacation from it this month, but the protests and police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, brought me right back. Many argue that it needs changes like this to attract a new set of users, and, indeed, its second quarter results showed promising user growth.

At some point in the future, though, its core product will be so altered by these changes that what we once called Twitter will no longer exist.