A well-established feature of Twitter is “Who to Follow.” Drawing on data about what accounts you follow and interact with, Twitter’s software automatically recommends other accounts that it thinks you might enjoy.
On Wednesday, Twitter confirmed that it recently tested a feature that suggests accounts you might want to unfollow. In a statement, a Twitter representative told me:
We know that people want a relevant Twitter timeline. One way to do this is by unfollowing people they don’t engage with regularly. We ran an incredibly limited test to surface accounts that people were not engaging with to check if they’d like to unfollow them.
The test ran for just a few days, was visible to a small fraction of users, and has now concluded, the spokesperson said. The company declined to comment on whether the company considers the test to have been successful or whether the feature might resurface at some point.
Twitter confirmed the test after a few users posted screenshots of the feature on Wednesday afternoon. Here’s one posted by the Next Web’s Matt Navarra:
And another posted by Quartz’s Tim Fernholz:
The idea of Twitter suggesting people to unfollow sounds risky, at first blush. People probably aren’t going to be thrilled when they find out the platform’s software has been recommending that others unfollow them. It’s not hard to imagine some conservatives spinning this into their “social media bias” narrative, as they did with another recent feature that critics dubbed “shadow banning.”
That said, Twitter told me the feature isn’t meant to pass judgment on the worth of anyone’s account. Rather, it’s simply intended to help you prune your follow list by bringing to your attention some accounts that you haven’t interacted with very much. That sounds reminiscent of a feature in Slack that occasionally suggests channels for you to unsubscribe from—a feature that seems useful and uncontroversial. Then again, a Slack channel isn’t a person and probably isn’t going to get its feelings hurt in quite the same way.
The test appears to be part of Twitter’s ongoing effort to boost engagement and user satisfaction by using software to personalize their feeds. The company’s timeline ranking algorithm and “In Case You Missed It” features have helped to revive the company’s engagement metrics somewhat over the past year.
In theory, suggested unfollows make sense as a complement to the timeline algorithm, because they give you control over whose tweets you see less of, whereas the algorithm makes its decisions based on your behavior, but without your direct knowledge or consent. They also counteract the phenomenon whereby people’s follow lists tend to grow to unmanageable proportions with time, because you’re constantly presented with interesting new people to follow but rarely prompted to unfollow people whose tweets aren’t cropping up regularly in your feed.
If Twitter does roll out the feature more broadly, it might want to rethink the text it uses in the prompt. The headline “Control What’s happening here” casts the unfollow suggestions in a somewhat harsh light, without explaining why Twitter is making those specific recommendations.