Chronological feeds are being replaced by algorithms

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Any algorithm can be gamed, so Facebook and Apple and Google are actually increasing the number of ways that content pushers can manipulate the system.

The feed is dying. The reverse-chronological social media feed — the way you’ve read Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (which is to say, the internet) at various points over the last decade, updates organized according to the time they were posted, refreshed at the top of the screen — no longer really makes sense. The unfiltered informational cascade that defined the internet of the 2010s is going the way of the front-page-style web portal: It’s an outdated way of processing online information. The way we consume social media is being transformed and tinkered with as Silicon Valley tries to wring as much engagement, attention, and money out of it as possible. The feed is dying, and we feel shocked by its death — but we shouldn’t.

The feed arose as a simple way to take advantage of the new possibilities of the web. How should information be sorted when it’s being created continually, and not in packaged issues or editions? Early on, putting content in a long list according to the time it was posted made the most sense. It’s the easiest way to organize anything, ever: You just make a pile, and the oldest stuff is at the bottom. It was a perfect paradigm for social networks: It’s transparent, so you don’t need to explain to your users how it works. It fits nicely on a smartphone. Best of all, it encourages people to constantly refresh, which reads as a certain kind of engagement.

Unfortunately, chronological order doesn’t scale well. Once a medium or platform has had its here-comes-everyone moment, the stuff you actually want to see gets buried in an undifferentiated stream — imagine a library organized chronologically, or even the morning edition of a newspaper. People are doing too many things and they are happening all at once, and the once-coherent experience of people using a platform unravels into noise. Who among us hasn’t logged into Twitter only to find friends one-upping each other with meta-meta-meta-ironic jokes about something that happened five minutes ago, and no longer is anyone actually mentioning the thing they’re joking about? Who among us has not followed someone because of a really excellent viral photo or tweet, and then hundreds of posts later it’s like Oh my God, stop talking about your cat, or your car, or your loneliness?

And, as it turns out, the same neutrality and transparency that made time-based sorting so appealing can be a particular liability for social media. It’s an established fact of social media services that, once they reach enough size that the potential audience for a post becomes nebulous, people shy from posting on them, because they can’t predict what reaction they’ll get. This — called “context collapse” — is why we’ve seen group messaging services boom as broader social media ones have flattened; in your Slack or HipChat or GroupMe, you know how your friends or family will react to a link you post. On an open and unfiltered social media feed, the outcome of posting to a public is far too unpredictable.

No one knows how little we respect reverse-chronological feeds better than the companies that produce them for us. Social media services have a vast amount of second-to-second information informing them of what people want to see and when; even the time we linger on a photo, or type something and delete it without posting, they know. You are not immediately aware of how much time you’re consuming flicking past dozens of posts waiting for your crush’s user name to stick at the top of the feed; Instagram is. Twitter knows which tweets from your feed you have clicked on, and maybe linked to in a DM, but never liked or retweeted. They know that your approach to the feed, even for an experience you yourself had a hand in creating, is not neutral. And they’re going to help you out.

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