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Twitter Experiment Elicits Howls of Disapproval

Twitter likes to experiment with its social network from time to time, but its latest tinkering with its members’ timelines appears to be ticking off more than a few tweeters.

The experiment opens timelines to tweets members’ followers have tagged as favorites, as well as to some popular tweets gleaned from their followers’ timelines.

“Changing the rules of engagement for users without notice is very Facebookian of you Twitter,” tweeted Peter Singer, Boston Celtics senior director for digital media. “Please reconsider the ‘favorites’ experiment.”

Another Twitter user, Michelle Tells, tweeted this: “I hate this Twitter’s latest experiment [that] turns favorites into retweets (and it’s annoying lots of people).”

Sanctity of Timeline

Unlike Facebook, which uses complex algorithms to determine what appears on their members’ News Feeds, Twitter has always had a simple policy for its members’ timelines. If you follow someone, their tweets appear on your Timeline. A follower’s retweets also will appear.

For many users, the existing policy already creates a fire hose of information on their timelines. Now Twitter is proposing to turn that fire hose into a water cannon — a change those members find very vexing.

“Why do they find this process annoying?” asked Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University. “Because they view their timeline as almost sacred.”

“The timeline is the way they keep up with people they wish to follow, and they do not want redundant or irrelevant material appearing in their timeline,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Such material can be distracting and viewed as a waste of time by some of the people on Twitter.”

Some users feel not only that their timelines will be diluted if the experimental feature become permanent, but also that they’re losing a measure of power over their account.

“It takes control out of the hands of Twitter users,” John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University, told the E-Commerce Times.

“That’s one of the big ways that Twitter is different from Facebook,” he said. “Facebook decides what it’s going to feed you in your News Feed. On Twitter, you choose.”

Short-Term Blunder?

Twitter outlined its policy on experiments in a company blog posted last fall.

“A common thread across recent releases has been experimentation,” wrote Vice President for Engineering Alex Roetter.

“We’ve tested various features with small groups of our 200 million users before determining what we’ll release. These tests are essential to delivering the best possible user experience,” he maintained.

“We also experiment with features that may never be released to everyone who uses Twitter. Those experiments are perhaps even more valuable because they help us decide what not to do — which is important as we work to keep Twitter simple while improving the user experience,” Roetter noted.

If Twitter is committed to improving the user experience, this latest experiment may not be the way to go.

“I worry that both of these experiments will backfire, at least in the short term,” Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Change and improvement are usually thought of as being beneficial, but it can’t be at the expense of upsetting the very users who are fueling Twitter engagement and usage,” he added.

Growth Problem

These experiments by Twitter are aimed at growing its user base, which is one-fifth that of Facebook’s, according to Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research.

“Both Twitter and Foursquare have the same problem at the moment,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“They have a set of power users that use the service in a particular way, but in order to grow at any kind of decent rate, they need to expand the set of people that they appeal to. That means changing themselves fundmentally,” he suggested.

“The way that most people who are on Twitter today use it is very different than the way it will have to work to attract hundreds of millions of additional users,” Dawson added. “What you’re seeing here is one way that it could change so it would be more appealing to a broader set of users.”

Setting up Twitter so useful information is flowing through a timeline can be time-consuming and may entail finding hundreds of accounts to follow. That might not be necessary for new users if the current experiments become permanent.

“It can reduce the headache for a new user to get a significant amount of relevant content coming into their feed,” Dawson explained, “but for someone who already follows a thousand carefully selected accounts, suddenly bombarding them with stuff they didn’t ask for is a negative experience.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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