Recently a friend told me he wanted to spend more time with Twitter, but he didn't know how. His primary interest is comedy, he told me, and he hoped to find a way to see the best jokes of comedians on Twitter as soon as they were posted. But when he followed comedians, he usually saw a lot of self-promotion – tour dates, late-night performances and things like that. Regardless of your personal interests, there are countless good and relevant tweets on Twitter. But where are they then?
Topics, a new feature of Twitter starting this week, represent a significant effort to answer that question. You can view more than 300 & # 39; topics & # 39; for sports, entertainment and gaming, just as you can currently track individual accounts. In return, you will see tweets of accounts that you do not follow that are credible on these topics.
Twitter managers hope Topics will make the platform more accessible to new and intermittent users and make it easier for heavier users to discover new accounts and conversations. The position will be rolled out worldwide on November 13.
"We know that the main reason people come to Twitter is to keep track of things they are interested in," said Rob Bishop, who heads the Topics team. "The challenge is that it's really hard to do that on Twitter every day."
The idea of having people follow topics alongside (or instead of) individual accounts dates from the earliest days of the company. But it took the development of tools for machine learning and hiring a human editorial team to make it possible.
As a journalist who spends around eight hours a day and at least takes a look at the Twitter timeline, I am a somewhat poor test case for the value of Topics. I follow people whose work is relevant to my own and very few others. In general, if it's important to the companies I cover, I don't miss it.
But I am also a professional wrestling nerd who recently became one alternately account to keep track of Twitter struggling. (I discovered that SummerSlam tweets were performing under my main account. If you can imagine!) The moment I created my new account, I was in the same place as my comedy-loving friend: knowing that there were many good tweets were there for me but not at all clear where to look.
I did the obvious things: the big pro-wrestling unions, the top stars and a handful of wrestling journalists and podcasters follow. But when Twitter enabled topics for my account, I could just follow "WWE". Suddenly a new icon appeared while I was scrolling, indicating that the tweet I was reading was from a topic I was following.
During a recent visit to the Twitter office, Bishop explained to me how tweets in a subject like WWE are selected for the timeline. First, Twitter scans incoming tweets for keywords such as & # 39; WWE & # 39 ;, & # 39; pro wrestling & # 39 ;, and so on. (It can't search for those terms in images and videos, at least not yet.) Second, Twitter looks for whether the tweet is from someone who normally tweets about that subject as a measure of credibility. Finally, Twitter looks at involvement: how many other people who care about this topic liked, tweeted or answered a tweet? The more people who interact with the tweet, the greater the chance that it will succeed.
The first and most obvious challenge here is to choose the right tweets to include in the timeline. In my experience, Twitter's algorithms were often a bit obvious. Many of the first tweets I saw came from official WWE accounts and the accounts of their wrestlers. A part of that is of course fine, but many of those much-involved tweets are just naked self-promotion and are not particularly valuable to me. (I already know what time the pay-per-view starts on Sunday, thanks.)
After a few days of testing, however, I started to see more relevant tweets. I heard that WWE had morally gone bankrupt transaction with the Saudi government, thanks a tweet about topics inserted in my timeline of a journalist that I had not followed. Another tweets on topics came about the same topic from a regular wrestling fan who gave spicy, relevant commentary. It was all I hoped would be Topics.
The second challenge in perfecting subjects is in balance: how many tweets about topics should Twitter show you? Bishop told me that, as a rule, the fewer individual accounts you follow, the more tweets you will likely see on topics. That seems to be a reasonable approach. I follow fewer than 100 people on my wrestling alt account, and many of the tweets in my timeline are just tweets that the people I follow liked. Tweets from Topics have so far been at least as good as those, and they are often better.
Yet a vocal subset of Twitter users is extremely picky about which tweets appear in their timeline. (When other people's preferences began to appear in the feed, seemingly random, my own timeline filled with the howling of injured users.) Twitter managers hope Topics are widely used, but it would not surprise me if power users decide that it not not for them.
A topic that you will not find in the first batch: politics. The company tells me that it is sensitive to the potential unintended consequences of its algorithms that provide extra reinforcement for tweets on sensitive topics, and so it is holding on to a lighter price to get started.
Bishop says the feature will shine for followers of large fandoms, such as large professional sports teams or the Korean boys band BTS. The group and its members represent one of the most discussed topics on Twitter, he said, and yet there are few official accounts to follow daily developments. (Get well soon, Jungkook!) That allowed fans to search for fan accounts, although Twitter has a good idea of what the best accounts are. Fans can now just follow the BTS topic and Twitter will display popular tweets about the band.
If Topics succeeds, Bishop said, the average person will follow fewer individual accounts. He even said they will probably follow more. It also means that your tweets on many popular topics can now travel farther than ever before, which can be a mixed blessing, as anyone who has ever seen a tweet that became viral and was confronted with intimidation as a result.
So what now? More topics, including topics that are internationally popular, said Bishop. The team is also working on a feature to mute topics, which can be useful for anyone trying to avoid spoilers for a popular TV show, for example. Ultimately, Bishop says, you might be able to cast your tweet & # 39; scary & # 39; to followers of a certain topic, which is another old dream of Twitter users. (Imagine that you can discuss the city in which you live on Twitter, but only with people who follow that topic.)
The company also plans to have you browse topics on an exploration page and view topics on a special list. (This is something that, in combination with narrowcasting, allows me to do all my tweeting from one account.)
Like some of the other features that Twitter has released this year – the ability to search your direct posts, I think – Topics are a feature that seems obvious, welcome, overdue, and not quite ready. But it also feels like meaningful progress for a company that has never known what to do with the abundance of incredible tweets that flow through its servers every day.
"As with any machine learning problem, we learn the most by putting it in the hands of customers and seeing what they are doing so we can build better models," Bishop said. "Our goal is to get rid of this as quickly as possible and let people use it so we can improve our algorithms."