lmost three years ago, Twitter introduced one of the most controversial changes in its history. It began using a ranking algorithm to decide what tweets people would see at the top of their timeline. Until then, it had (with some exceptions) simply shown users all the tweets from everyone they follow in reverse-chronological order.
There was an option to turn off the algorithmic ranking, but it was hidden within the Twitter settings, and its function wasn’t obvious. The default setting was called “Show the best tweets first,” and unchecking it would revert your timeline to the old reverse-chron system. Evidence that people struggled with the setting could be found every time people complained during a live event that they were seeing tweets from hours or even days earlier.
Twitter also told me that its own research showed many users had turned off the algorithm at some point, then forgotten that they’d done so and never turned it back on.
But that’s about to change—at least for users of the iOS app. Starting Tuesday, they’ll be able to toggle with a single tap between the ranked timeline—which Twitter is now calling the “home” timeline—and an unfiltered, reverse-chronological one. You’ll do that by using a “sparkle” icon that appears to the top right of your timeline. Tap it once, and your timeline will switch to reverse-chron. Tap it again, and the algorithm is back. The home timeline will appear by default when you refresh or log back in after being away for a while.
Twitter’s product lead, Keith Coleman, announced and explained the change in a Twitter thread Tuesday. The company says it should be available on platforms other than iOS in January.
With the change, Twitter will retire the old option to turn off “show the best tweets first” in your Twitter settings. That may irk some users who thought they’d ridded themselves of the algorithm for good. In a briefing prior to the announcement, Coleman told me the company has thought about this, and built its system to “learn” people’s preferences over time. So if a given user keeps turning off the ranking algorithm, eventually Twitter will stop showing it to them, unless they’ve been logged out for a long time.
“There are some times when rankings are good, because they help you catch up and get a summary of what’s going on,” Coleman says. “There are other times where the [ranked] home timeline isn’t the best. Let’s say it’s Election Night. You’re caught up on what’s been going on, and you just want to see what the latest is.” Now it will be easier to do that.
In its testing of the new feature, Twitter says it found that users are having 2 percent more conversations than before. In particular, they’re interacting more with other users during live events that they’re following, presumably because they’re seeing everyone’s tweets in real time rather than having outdated ones mixed in. They’ve also reported higher satisfaction with Twitter overall.
I still anticipate a backlash from folks who have already told Twitter they don’t want their timeline ranked and now must tell Twitter the same thing again, multiple times. But I also expect this to help Twitter’s business long-term, because all indications are that the ranked timeline does boost user engagement and satisfaction, even if people don’t realize it. And, of course, this is a feature Twitter users have been clamoring for since before it even introduced the ranked timeline. So maybe, for once, it’s a Twitter tweak that will go over well.