Twitter, like almost every web service over a certain size, regularly runs tests to see if new features will be embraced or rejected by users. But its latest test has proved to be a little more controversial than most: for a limited time, Twitter was recommending people for its users to unfollow.
The test, Twitter says, was only active for a handful of days and only visible to a small set of users. It’s not clear whether the test was deemed successful or not.
“We know that people want a relevant Twitter timeline. One way to do this is by unfollowing people they don’t engage with regularly,” a Twitter representative told Slate. “We ran an incredibly limited test to surface accounts that people were not engaging with to check if they’d like to unfollow them.”
This is what it looks like in practice, captured by Quartz’s Tim Fernholz:
This feels like the kind of tone-deaf move that big tech firms often make without thinking. Although it’s not framed as such, telling users “who you should dump” is tricky for a couple of reasons. Firstly, people are often far too sensitive to behaviour on social media, and being unfollowed feels like a slap in the face. Actively encouraging social breakups feels ill-advised to say the least: far better to stay out of that kind of fight.
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Perhaps more importantly though, suggesting people unfollow others at a time when social media companies are under pressure for supposedly censoring voices just isn’t a good look. Never mind that this seems to be entirely algorithmically based, making suggestions based on how much you interact: intervening in people’s choices just looks like Twitter is trying to control what they see. And it isn’t helped when the test is only visible to a few users – which will no doubt fuel fears of a secret clandestine plot to control everyone.
Beyond hurt feelings and conspiracy theory though, the sad thing is – if framed right – this is quite a useful feature. There’s a reason that services like Twitter Karma, Manage Flitter and iUnfollow are popular: Twitter can become completely unmanageable over time, and the company almost certainly has data showing that noisy timelines put people off. Slack has a similar prompt where it suggests you leave channels that you rarely contribute to, and people tend to find that a useful feature.
But Slack channels aren’t people. Slack channels don’t get hurt feelings, or resent the algorithm for decreeing that they’re not interesting enough. So we’d be surprised if this feature does return – at least not in its current form.
Would you find suggestions of who to unfollow on Twitter useful? Let us know on – you guessed it – Twitter @TrustedReviews.