My For You page is a mess.
Not the For You page you’re probably envisioning. No, my TikTok For You page is lovely: In the past month alone, it’s introduced me to serendipitous wonders such as Nate the Hoof Guy (he cleans cow hooves), TitanicFan97 (he compulsively collects VHS copies of James Cameron’s Titanic), and an account called Unclogging Drains (an account devoted to, well, unclogging sewer drains.)
On Twitter, however, my recommendations form a sort of online cesspool, replete with the least relevant and interesting things I can imagine.
Ever since Twitter—seemingly inspired by TikTok’s global success—introduced its own For You page earlier this month, my feed has been filled with the kinds of tweets I’d mostly been able to avoid until now. For starters, there are the right-wing commentators: Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Matt Walsh, and Libs of TikTok. I’ve never followed any of them and, frankly, I’ve never wanted to see anything they’ve tweeted. But in the past week, I’ve had to actively mute each or risk my blood boiling every time I open the app.
There are the ‘some personal news’ tweets, but they’re often from people I don’t know. Still, congrats on your new job, promotion, marriage, or baby.
But the worst things I’ve seen are suggested under a label called ‘You might like.’ “Porn is free because you pay with your soul,” one ominous tweet read. Another was a piece of Covid vaccine scaremongering: a video of a man convulsing allegedly from the side effects of an AstraZeneca vaccine. Another recommended tweet read simply, “Love is easy. Trust is hard.” That one was from Justine Musk, the ex-wife of Elon Musk, the world’s second-richest person who bought Twitter for $44 billion and took over the company in late October. Thanks for the insight, Justine.
Elon Musk hates algorithmic news feeds. At least, that’s what he’s been telling his hundreds of millions of followers since he began the long and drawn-out battle to buy Twitter in March 2022. Last May, he criticized Twitter’s algorithmic feed as “manipulative” and encouraged Twitter users to opt for the reverse chronological news feed instead.
Previously, you may recall, Twitter users were able to toggle back and forth between two newsfeed options: Algorithmic and reverse chronological. The former showed content you might like from people you follow. The latter simply showed every tweet from those you follow, with the most recent at the top of the feed.
In recent years, Twitter introduced more and more content from people users did not follow into their feeds—suggestions based on what the people they follow ‘like’ and content centered around relevant ‘topics.’ But the Twitter experience has always been dominated by the tweets and retweets of those that its users choose to follow. Additionally, the site has traditionally given users lots of control over blocking and muting accounts and even keywords they don’t want to see.
Enter Elon. With the latest news feed change, the billionaire entrepreneur changed the old setup and put two feeds side-by-side for users to toggle between. There’s the Following page, which mimics the old reverse chronological feed (though I swear it misses things), and the For You page, which ferries in content from around the site, often from accounts you don’t follow, in the style of TikTok’s own For You page.
Jess Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama, said in an interview that it’s the latest in a long line of social media platforms—Meta-owned Instagram chief among them—that have tried to copy TikTok’s success.
Maddox added that Twitter’s rollout of this new feed structure is emblematic of Musk’s tenure so far. “Since he’s taken over, it’s been nothing but chaos on the platform,” she said. “He’s been threatening to do away with algorithms, and then what do we get? An even more algorithmically heavy feed. That’s kind of been the essence of his entire takeover—promising one thing and then actually doing another.”
To make matters worse, the For You page is the default user experience on Twitter right now—and users currently cannot change that.
Twitter’s For You page isn’t bad because it’s a heavy-handed recommendation algorithm. Twitter’s For You page is bad because its execution is terrible.
I’ve devoted years of my life to posting on Twitter, scrolling, retweeting, and liking at a volume that can only be described as “compulsively unhealthy.” Twitter should know what I like and what I don’t like. It should know what makes me happy and what makes me mad.
The brilliance of TikTok has always been its bizarre and powerful recommendation algorithm. Like many other people, I downloaded TikTok at the outset of the pandemic and was stunned that it instantly fed me videos I wanted to see based on very little input data about my interests. Since that time, there has been a mass scramble among Silicon Valley’s tech companies to replicate the entertainment value and financial success of TikTok, epitomized by Instagram’s flat-footed lurch into TikTok-style video content, called Reels.
Twitter’s For You page can be successful, but it would need to harness the purpose of Twitter, which centers on information-sharing.
“Twitter has never claimed to be a platform about community. It has always claimed to be a platform about information-sharing. That’s how it’s always branded itself in its internal documents,” Maddox said, noting that Twitter shares some qualities with TikTok because they’re both first and foremost about finding information or entertainment rather than connecting with friends and family.
TikTok found success because of its For You page. Twitter, on the other hand, will learn that people might not love it if you radically change a product’s primary user experience after 15 years.
But maybe, the For You page is already getting better. Algorithms thrive off of inputs, so it simply has to improve over time. Right? (Gulp.)
Anyway, if it’s showing people my tweets, then how bad could it be?