Topical Twitter

30 November 2016

I love Twitter, I check it constantly and tweet multiple times a day, but recent events have highlighted a deficiency in its simplicity. Having only one timeline is frustrating when the hive mind isn’t talking about things that I am interested in.

This limitation has come to the fore in recent months with the calvacade of political events that have happened this year. My personal enjoyment of Twitter has been hampered because my feed is just flooded every single day with news about Brexit, Farage, Hillary, Trump and countless other political topics.

Politics is important and these radical happenings (with world-changing consequences) are worth discussing, but I don’t personally go to Twitter for this stuff. I have carefully tuned my following list to focus on technology news and design. These past months, I’ve seen my timeline dominated by anything but technology, predominantly reactions to whatever stupid thing Donald Trump said.

It sucks. It’s grating. I didn’t sign up for that. Twitter is my escape from the real world where I can talk about USB ports, CPU speed and how the watchOS 3 Siri visualisation doesn’t animate in response to voice input. I feel like I’ve done what I can to curate my feed to my interests, I follow zero government commentators or political party representatives, yet the hive mind can still takeover on a whim and drown my timeline with news.

I think this is a fundamental constraint with the single timeline approach. Muting isn’t a solution; filters are laborious to maintain and don’t catch everything. The issue is not solely related to my reading list either. It’s also about the people that read my contributions: I think my technology tweets in the past couple of months have seen significantly less engagement because everybody is being overwhelmed by the political world headlines.

A sub-community to discuss technology, for example, just isn’t a concept in today’s Twitter. Stating this now it’s obvious but its never hit home in my head until now. I don’t think there’s been such an all-encompassing topic that has lasted this long before. I’ve always applauded Twitter for its simplicity and never before appreciated how alienating it can be.

As a result of my Twitter timeline being effectively hijacked, I’ve been spending more of my time on Reddit. Reddit has a main page comprising the most popular stuff but it also has categorisation called subreddits. If you visit r/apple, you are in a section of the site where you will only see stories about Apple, only see comments about Apple and only be talking to other people with a mindset to talk about Apple.

As Twitter searches for ways to make its product more approachable, I wonder if adopting some kind of topic-based timeline system has wider appeal. Twitter groups would bring users into a dedicated place to talk about a particular thing, isolated from the scrabble of the unfiltered main timeline. A peaceful island that acknowledges the wider world but is focused on a single collective subject. These topics would be curated by real people and ultimately managed by Twitter. (All tweets would continue to appear in the main timeline stream, in accordance with the existing visibility rules which control when replies and mentions show up.)