Matt Williams: why we don’t want Twitter to choose our tweets with new ‘custom timelines’

195956_1I love Danny Baker (left). He’s an exceptional journalist. A ‘man of the people’, who has a beautiful way with words, a great sense of humour and a humility that many in the entertainment business severely lack.

More importantly, he’s the only person I know who can actually adjudicate a tolerable phone-in. He knows how to get the very best out of people. He can deal with the odd, uncomfortable or unexpected callers. He knows what the listener wants.

Most other phone-in shows are deplorable. Or any other sort of ‘comments’ section on a TV or radio show for that matter.

For a start it’s hard not to question the personality – or sanity – of anyone with the desire to ring up a radio station just to sit on hold for 20 minutes before they utter some mindless dross about Arsene Wenger or the price of bus tickets.

And it baffles me to think that media outlets honestly believe that any of us really cares what a random taxi driver from Croydon thinks about the situation in the Middle East.

If we wanted mindless, uninformed opinions by loudmouths on subjects they know nothing about, we’d just go down the pub. Or read the Daily Mail.

I don’t know about you, but the reason I watch any non-fiction TV programme or listen to a radio station that doesn’t just play music is because these broadcasters have the ability to attract leaders in their field. People who are close to and knowledgeable about the situation at hand. Who can tell me things I don’t know. Whose opinions I may not necessarily like, but who I’ve chosen to listen to because they’re in a position of authority, or are privy to information that a viewer might not know. Not Dave in Peckham who’s calling out for Scottish independence because a Scot once overcharged him for a bacon roll and therefore thinks England would be better off without any of them.

(I’m aware after saying all this that Match of the Day still chooses Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer as pundits, but that’s an argument for a different day).

The trouble is, social media is only enhancing this problem. Now broadcasters can get viewer opinion through very little work at all, and it’s easy filler – you don’t have to source a credible expert, you don’t have to work hard on actually coming up with any actual enlightening content, and it requires little more than a presenter with an iPad.

This came to mind after a frustrating few hours watching Sky Sports’ Transfer Deadline Day coverage a couple of weeks ago. OK, so maybe the joke’s on me for expecting anything more, or for getting wrapped up in a day known for being full of hot air. But the reason I put on Sky Sports News was for insider information on players who may or may not be moving clubs. I put it on for interviews with players and managers actually making the decisions (even if it does have to be Harry Redknapp leaning out a car window).

I don’t put it on for fans’ Twitter opinions. You can cut to this once or twice maybe when the content is running dry, but the presenters seemed to be scouring Twitter every 15 minutes. Does anyone really care that a Man Utd fan who’s never been to Old Trafford in his life “thinks the signing of Falcao is SICK”? Nope, me neither.

Which is exactly why I understand the furore about Twitter’s latest move to start putting tweets from people you don’t follow into your timeline, so-called ‘custom timelines.’ It’s now an official policy – Twitter will add strangers’ tweets, new accounts to follow and other “popular” content to your feed.
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The claim is, of course, that Twitter is trying to make your stream “even more relevant and interesting,” but to me this undermines one of the fundamental reasons that made Twitter desirable in the first place.

Everything about Twitter is honed, from its character limitations to its user interface. And the fact that you can modify and refine your choices of people you follow is part of that. You’re in control. You can use Twitter how you like. Just want to follow mates to see what they’re doing? You can. Want to use it primarily as a news source? You can. Want to spend the day engrossed in vine videos of cats dressed as humans? Go for it, the options are
there for you.

The powerful feeling of being in control. Whether that’s controlling how you broadcast yourself or who you’re broadcast to – that’s what consumers love. And that’s what those successful entrepreneurs who have started up Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat et al understand.

But the minute those social media bosses try to yield too much of their own power on their users, to take that control away (usually, of course, due to shareholder demands), that’s when things start to unravel.

It’s a delicate line that these companies are negotiating. Let’s hope they keep their balance.

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.