In the ten years that Twitter has been an online presence, the social media platform has radically changed the way we receive and react to information. As a recreational tool it allows us to connect with people all over the world, sharing our thoughts, opinions, fears, and the general existence of the every day mundane in only 140 characters. We build and break connections with people we may never meet in person, jumping in and out of timelines at a leisurely pace or with rapid fire exuberance. It’s become the norm to include the words “tweet” and “hashtag” into casual conversation as we try to navigate the “dos and don’ts” of a social space with loosely defined rules at best.
But, really, a similar description could be applied to Twitter’s distant cousin site, Facebook. Certainly the idea behind the two platforms is the same. Where Twitter consistently beats Facebook is in its live timeline, a feature that has proven its value as a tool of social activism. The real-time feed of information has been instrumental in exposing the global community to revolutions, protests, tragedies, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, systemic racism, and political inaction in ways that weren’t possible before. The #BlackLivesMatter movement rose and remains a political lightning rod because of the live feed, bringing the hardships and daily experiences of black men, women, and children into the lives of people outside the black community; exposing them to something that can’t be ignored or overlooked in good conscience. The hashtag has become a symbol of activism, but it is also a means of gathering information. The aggregate function of a hashtag allows users to effectively track an event or a trend with the option to get a live feed as the hashtag is used or see the highlights based on the amount of “likes” and “retweets.”
The combination of real-time updates and aggregate searches makes Twitter an invaluable primary resource not just for regular users but for scholars, researchers, and students. So, of course, when news spread that Twitter was thinking about changing the live-feed default to a more streamlined feed with an emphasis on trending tweets, reportedly using an algorithm to display tweets based on what the user may like, people got a bit concerned. And by concerned, I mean #RIPTwitter became an immediate trending topic. While those behind-the-scenes at Twitter have mostly dispelled those rumors, the reaction is far more interesting. In the last few years Twitter has made small attempts to alter their platform to attract more users. These have mostly been design changes, but even that had numerous detractors because to those of us who experience Twitter, casually or fervently, something was taken away without our consent.
Twitter’s biggest selling point, right after the live-feed, has been the illusion of choice. We choose who we follow, who we block or mute, and we customize our homepages with images and color schemes in order to put our personalized stamp on the Twittersphere. Again, Facebook shares a lot of the same functions, but delayed updates, especially where real-time news is concerned, and a fairly static page without a character limit makes for a less energetic approach to social media. By contrast, Twitter encourages activity, confronting users with a feed that grows by the second and displays how many tweets have been added that haven’t been seen. The constant presence, no matter what page, of the scorecard keeping track of the tweets made by the user, people or accounts the user is following, and the people or accounts following the user promotes a currency of influence. If you want to get more followers, if you want to be heard by more people, then you need to be more active on Twitter. Unless you’re on your homepage, Facebook doesn’t display the amount of friends you have for public scrutiny. So to make a long story short (too late!): you peruse Facebook, but you engage with Twitter, which gives us a greater attachment and investment in how we represent ourselves. Thus, everything is curated by the individual, so when the site changes something even the most minute alteration becomes a violation of the user’s ability to choose.
Whether or not the people behind Twitter know it, they’ve stumbled into the murky waters of information control. It’s not a new concept by any means. We experience it daily, especially where our news consumption is concerned. Every channel, website, and print article practices a form of information control, cherry-picking facts out of the original context in order to craft a narrative suitable to the needs of its audience. We want to be informed, but we also want our biases confirmed so those in the position of gathering and reporting the news cater to those biases regardless of the harm done in the process. The discipline of historiography is all about examining the subject of history and how authors shape the narrative of any person, place, or thing of historical significance. In my profession as an Archivist, we’re confronted by the sins of information control on a near constant basis. It’s easy to point our fingers at regimes like the Nazis, the Stasi, Stalinist Russia, or North Korea who keep meticulous records to justify their existence, but one can’t deny that practically all archival institutions stand on the shoulders of people who were deliberately left out of the record. Power lies in existence, in having a voice, and when we’re no longer around to speak for ourselves then the record should speak for us. The multitude of silences in the archives is deafening.
Now, I’m not saying Twitter is deliberately altering timelines in order hatch a nefarious plot of dictating information to users. The CEO has already gone on record saying the live-feed is important because it’s essentially what makes Twitter unique compared to other social media platforms, which is true. What I am saying is how they’ve approached updating the website and what they’re updating speaks to some very odd priorities. Though the algorithm-based feed is an opt-in feature, they weren’t exactly forthcoming with that information until they were forced to explain themselves. And even then, they were defensive and reactionary; sounds about right for Twitter, actually. Basically, their customer service skills are wanting, which is why users pondered the reason for aesthetic changes taking priority over issues of security and safety – something that Twitter has dragged their heels on until recently. It says something when the look of your website has more focus than the actual user-base. But, again, even aesthetic changes made, without warning and in the face of the previous freedom to customize, sends a message. When your users resent and distrust you for making minor changes, what’s to stop them from believing you’ll let them see what they want to see versus what you think they may like to see?