Twitter’s been taking a beating lately: the social network is facing slumping stocks, attrition within the ranks, a drop from 307 million monthly active users to 305 million monthly active users, and nearly 1 billion inactive users.

This clearly isn’t the time for incremental shifts, so last Wednesday, Twitter pushed out an update that fundamentally changes the way its users interact with content. Instead of appearing based on when they were written, tweets will now appear based on relevance: “[CEO Jack] Dorsey is pushing a revamped feed that would allow users to see popular tweets from accounts they follow rather than in chronological order, which would be an expansion of the current ‘while you were away’ feature,” according to International Business Times.

The immediate response was (as it often is) predominantly negative. “Twitter’s plan to ruin Twitter is official,” reads one of the many negative headlines. It seems people aren’t pleased with the idea that an algorithm, rather than their own rapidly scrolling thumbs, will be determining what they do and don’t see.

The response is understandable — change is hard — but this change is fundamentally good for Twitter and the vast majority of people who use it. In fact, the biggest surprise is that Twitter didn’t do this sooner. (Plus, if you don’t like the change, you can opt out.)

“Algorithms can filter the signal from Twitter’s immense noise and make the platform a much more accessible and relevant source of information for 99 percent of its users.” 
– Nick Edwards, CEO of Boomtrain, in
International Business Times

Why Twitter Has So Much Trouble Keeping Users Active

Twitter has long had a retention problem. For every 100 new accounts that get created, about 85 become inactive. The social network continues to grow in terms of overall user base, but size alone won’t sustain it; Twitter needs active users in order to generate ad revenue and to attract other active users. So what’s the source of the problem?

First off, Twitter is a lonely place for new users. The content-firehose effect makes it hard to find the wheat among the chaff, and building up your community takes time (unlike on Facebook or even LinkedIn). These factors, combined with Twitter’s public nature and its many UX peccadilloes (. @ # DM), make the platform especially intimidating for newbies. Many of them drop off before getting acclimated and reaping its unique benefits (for example, there’s no better place to get a snapshot of public sentiment).

Twitter has actually been aware of this onboarding problem for some time. Its initial response was the “While You Were Away” feature, which gave users short highlight reels of the relevant content they missed since their last visits.

The new algorithm-powered timeline is really just an extension of that feature. It puts the most relevant (and popular) tweets at the top, hopefully sparing you from a lot of the noise. Power users can always opt out and go back to the chronological timeline, but you no longer have to be a Twitter expert to find content that’s meaningful to you.

What the Change Means for Businesses

As Twitter revs up for this latest comeback attempt, there are no sacred cows. Rather than optimizing for a small subset of power users, Twitter has decided to focus on delivering a higher concentration of relevant content to as many people as possible. By taking a “greatest hits” approach, it’s making the timeline much more approachable for new or occasional users, which are the segments it most desperately needs to reactivate. This approach might prove especially beneficial for new users who are already familiar with Facebook’s curated feed.

The good news for businesses is that Twitter’s new timeline will increase the value of a single tweet. In 2014, Wiselytics estimated that the half-life of a tweet is 24 minutes (4 times shorter than the half-life of a Facebook post). Now that people will see tweets based on what’s relevant rather than what got posted recently, the average half-life of a tweet will increase — as long as it’s valuable.

The message from Twitter: produce more relevant content, and you’ll become more visible. In response, savvy businesses will focus on quality rather than quantity — which will require them to really understand their audience’s interests, likely using outside tools (Twitter’s built-in analytics are helpful for snapshots, but not much more).

As for what the change means for Twitter: the algorithm-powered timeline will make it look a lot more like Facebook. Will the change help Twitter engage users without losing its character? We’ll see in the coming months.

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