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A New Twitter Feature: Smart Accounts

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2018

Last night, Twitter gave its users the option to switch back to a purely chronological timeline.

Meanwhile, today we updated the “Show the best Tweets first” setting. When off, you’ll only see Tweets from people you follow in reverse chronological order. Previously when turned off, you’d also see “In case you missed it” and recommended Tweets from people you don’t follow.

That’s good! Most users probably benefit from the algorithmic timeline, but not everyone wants to use the service that way (I certainly don’t).

Whenever Twitter changes their mind like this, it always reminds me of a missed opportunity by the company to give people more ways to discover new things on Twitter while keeping the service simple. They’ve tried the Discover feature, sticking likes from friends in the timeline, “in case you missed it”, recommended followers, Moments, Trends, etc. etc. And despite these things being at least somewhat interesting some of the time, many people freak out because they don’t have any control over whether this stuff pops up in their timelines.

What Twitter should do instead1 is use the same simple mechanism people already use to control their timelines: following and unfollowing. Instead of adding tabs to the interface or throwing random stuff into everyone’s timeline for the greater good, those things should be accounts you can follow. Call them Smart Accounts because they would be based on each user’s particular activity. Then users would be able to have a fully chronological timeline but also see tweets from their Smart Accounts according to their particular preferences.

Here’s an example. Seeing likes from people you follow is fun and interesting…the serendipity and relevance factors are high.1 The “Likes from Friends” Smart Account would post tweets that your friends have liked recently and you could set how many you wanted to see each day.

More examples:

- In Case You Missed It. Just like the current feature, except you can follow/unfollow and control the frequency.

- Trends. An account that posts tweets related to trending stories…or maybe it just alerts you that “Mario Kart” is trending. You can see global trends, location-based, or tailored just for you.

- Threads. See X number of the most popular threads posted in my extended network each day.

- Who to Follow. Every day (or X number of times/day), this account would suggest an account to follow.

- Moments. I never ever go to the Moments tab but I would definitely follow an account that periodically tweeted out the five best Moments from my extended network each day.

- Promoted Tweets. This is a Smart Account everyone would have to follow. But maybe you could pay a subscription fee to be able to unfollow?

I would pretty much follow all of those accounts in some way…and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Twitter has all kinds of interest data that you could slice up in interesting ways and feed back into the system. A “Longreads” account that tweets out a long magazine or newspaper article that’s bubbling up in your network each day before your commute home? A “Book Stack” account that recommends books that people in your network have tweeted about recently. A “Smart Smart Accounts” account that recommends new Smart Accounts to follow (*Inception Horn*). A “Random Follow” account that automagically follows a different recommended account each day…then unfollows them and follows a new account the next day. Likes from My Friends’ Friends. Trending Videos. Meme Factory. Check Out My Soundcloud. So many possibilities.

Twitter wouldn’t want these accounts to get lost in the shuffle — they need to keep that engagement high — so maybe they’d have special status in the app somewhere: a tab that replaces Moments and they’re listed first on the Following page? Perhaps a few Smart Accounts are turned on by default when you make a new account. Maybe users could pin the tweets from select Smart Accounts to the tops of their timelines (much like Twitter was forcing on people with the algorithmic timeline).

But the point of all this is that Twitter would have a way to deliver new & engaging features powered by their algorithmic special sauce to their users in a very familiar and simple way without always mucking up people’s expectations: by simply clicking the follow button.

  1. I mean, besides banning Nazis.

  2. I should know, I ran a beloved service called Stellar for a few years where people could follow each others likes. Many people miss it and I really do too. In fact, the whole Smart Accounts idea came from Stellar. There were “house” accounts you could follow that fed interesting posts and links back into the system. It kept things simple — every feature is just a followable account — but also gave everyone controlled access to different interesting parts of the data set, increasing the level of serendipity. If I’d had the time and the money and a more stable Twitter API, Stellar would have been very Smart Accounts-driven. And it would have been fucking amazing. (Can you tell how much I like this idea?!)