With Twitter about to launch a new Topics feature, I’ve been thinking about some of the different ways Twitter and Reddit try to help users engage with content streams.
What Reddit gets right
Reddit beats Twitter at a few areas:
- Being able to sort posts in a subreddit to find the best posts of the last month, or all time. This is something I frequently wish was available in Twitter. When I discover an interesting new account, I want to see their greatest hits, which might have all been in the distant past. Similarly I might want to apply this to a hashtag, or in future, a Topic. Currently a lot of old-but-gold Twitter content is essentially inaccessible, which is a shame.
- User-generated communities. Based on the discussion of Twitter Topics in the article linked above, it seems like they’ll be curated by some combination of Twitter staff and ML detection. This will make it really hard to match the novelty of Reddit’s user-created niche subreddits. It seems pretty likely Topics will end up covering obvious things like sports and cities, but are unlikely to approach the creative joy of subreddits like /r/forbiddensnacks or /r/retrofuturism.
- Helping new users gain an audience for contributions. As a new user, actually contributing to Twitter is mostly like shouting into the void: people don’t really see your tweets unless they’re crammed with hashtags, and even then the mechanics of Twitter don’t really encourage people to monitor hashtags and reply to new tweets. In contrast, posting to a subreddit puts your content right in front of a self-selected audience and there’s usually at least a bit of engagement.
Both Reddit and Twitter suffer from potentially overloading consumers with low-value or irrelevant content. Partly this is because subscribing to a Reddit subreddit or Twitter account is a pretty binary action. Apart from whatever algorithmic tinkering they apply to your feed, your choice is to ‘subscribe’, not ‘subscribe to all posts with at least 50 upvotes/likes’, or ‘subscribe to top 10 posts each day from this subreddit/user’, or ‘subscribe to this user’s posts about technology but not politics’. (This latter point is one they mention they’re thinking about in the Topics context.)
I don’t think algorithms have really solved this question, and users are left with insufficient controls to tune their feeds. I’d be interested to know whether Reddit and Twitter think that users wouldn’t actually use these controls anyway, and they really have to take central control via algorithms. But Facebook does provide useful options here: ‘see less of this kind of post’, ‘snooze this user for 30 days’, ‘hide this user’ all give the user more explicit control and feedback mechanisms. Onboarding is also obviously important here; all three platforms seem to have recognised this and prompt you to find relevant communities/topics/accounts when you sign up.
Twitter should help you find people
Although I’ll be interested to see where Twitter goes with Topics, for now, it’s a heavily account-centric model. But apart from occasional suggestions based on something like network similarity, it doesn’t do much to help you find interesting accounts to follow. Some ways it could do this:
- Finding weak-tie accounts, i.e. accounts that are often followed by people from multiple social clusters. For example, which conservatives are most often followed by progressives or independents? I’m probably not interested in following an intensely right-wing QAnon conspiracy theorist, but I’m keen to read conservative opinion that is sufficiently well-constructed to be valued by other people.
- More specific account search tools, e.g. “find me all people in Sydney who are tweeting about (or even engaged in, based on follower relationships) both synthetic biology and machine learning”. The data to do this is already public; you might have to be careful about specifically what search tools you expose, as Facebook Graph Search had some safety implications, but I think the basic idea is sound. It could also help to facilitate online-to-offline interactions: in a similar way to Facebook trying to encourage more groups and events as part of re-emphasing an IRL social fabric, Twitter could do more to help build real interest communities.
- Surfacing Lists in search results, sorted by subscription count. Twitter Lists let you group together interesting accounts, and you can follow a list created by someone else. But you can’t really search for them, which makes discovery really weak. Some of this use case would be addressed by better Topics, but I think there are certain types of lists that collect together interesting thinkers or commentators in a way that wouldn’t be easily captured by a Topic.
As the amount of content continues to explode, curation will become increasingly important. The rise of email newsletters (e.g. Substack, The Browser) seems to be partly an example of this. But it will also be vital for the core platforms themselves to keep making it easy for people to find useful content. Many of these lessons apply to other verticals too: how does any piece of enterprise software deliver the right content to the people who need to see it? Slack, Salesforce, Outlook and other platforms all confront the same issue, but the discovery and surfacing mechanisms haven’t evolved much over time. An opportunity, perhaps.