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A kink in the fire hose: Twitter search and ‘top tweets’

The ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources.

Twitter is real-time. It’s news on-the-ground, right now–before the cable 24–7s, online news outlets, or bloggers run with the story. By searching Twitter for a topic, you gain instant access to primary sources–raw data–before it’s digested and regurgitated by main stream media. No filters. No spindoctors.

Last week, however, twitter.com introduced a subtle change to search. Queries no longer return the ‘fire hose’–i.e., every tweet that matches your search string. Instead, by default, only ‘top’ results show up. As Twitter explains here, top tweets are “popular Tweets that have caught the attention of other Twitter users.” In other words, Twitter’s search algorithm surfaces only the content that is already generating conversation.

No big deal, right? Isn’t this good for users? In some ways, it is. Twitter explains, “We think that showing the Tweets that other users have retweeted, shared, and interacted with can help you find new and helpful information more easily.” Popular content is popular for a reason. And those who want the fire hose can still enable it with just a few extra clicks.

But the ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources. Making ‘top’ the default view re-intermediates the content. Once again, news belongs to the elites–this time, the Twitterati. It’s a de-democratization of Twitter, muting the masses and amplifying the celebrated few.

If this change really does undermine Twitter’s core competency, why make it at all? Why default to top tweets? Here’s a (cynical) hypothesis: it might be about money.

Twitter must eventually capitalize on its cultural cache. But the company’s monetization efforts have been marked by bungled roll-outs and miniscule returns. Consider February’s Quick Bar fiasco. Twitter’s official iPhone app slapped a panel of trending topics on top of users’ timelines. The ‘feature’ could not be disabled, and many ‘trends’ were sponsored, thinly veiled advertisements. The Twittersphere erupted, condemning the obtrusive “Dick Bar.” Complaints continued unabated until Twitter finally backed down.

Whatever prompted the ‘top tweets’ change, it’s far less brazen than the despised Dick Bar. In fact, this subtlety may be strategic. Rebuffed by the earlier blunder, perhaps Twitter is tip-toeing into ad integration this time around. Will the ‘top tweets’ feature (like the Dick Bar before it) eventually integrate more ‘sponsored results’? How else might ‘top tweets’ pave the way for a more ad-friendly Twitter?