It Doesn’t Really Matter How Social Media Timelines Are Ordered

Just give us more of what we like

Key Takeaways

  • A proposed law pushes for chronological timelines on social media feeds.
  • Not all algorithms are bad.
  • Chronological timelines may not be the answer.
car parked next to wall with graffiti about needing more likes

Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash

A bipartisan bill may end social media's best and worst feature—the algorithmic timeline. 

The bill would force social media services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to offer a plain old chronological timeline as an alternative to the algorithm-created flows that are optimized to keep users engaged and enraged. 

The idea is that users could choose to switch away from these opaque and possibly manipulative content feeds and take back a measure of control. But will it work? After all, there's a reason these platforms are so popular—people like what they're being fed. 

"The core purpose of the algorithm is to help people see the most engaging content that is relevant to them. This is a pro as it keeps people interested in the app, enticing them to stay on longer," former social media manager Hayley Kaye told Lifewire via email. "The reverse is true in terms of chronological feed. If the feed is always chronological, it gets boring as not everything online is exciting or relevant to you."

The Algorithmic Advantage

It’s certainly frustrating when you flip away from Instagram for a moment, and when you return, you’re in a totally different place than where you left off. But on the other hand, it might be equally annoying that you miss posts from close friends and family because they posted a few hours ago, and they’ve slipped off the bottom of your feed. 

Even if you’re anti-algorithm, you can enjoy the benefits. YouTube is uncannily good at recommending a video to follow the one you just watched. That might lead to a spiral into more problematic content, but if you’re, say, learning to play the guitar, it can be a valuable guide. 

"The core purpose of the algorithm is to help people see the most engaging content that is relevant to them."

The problem, then, isn't algorithms themselves. It's that these algorithms are, in the words of the proposed bill, "opaque." Their parameters, and therefore their purpose, are hidden. 

"If we look at TikTok, the reason it is such a huge hit among users is primarily because the algorithm is so good," Kyle Dulay, co-founder of social media influencer matchmaking service Collabstr, told Lifewire via email, "and ultimately this keeps them coming back to the app for more."

The algorithm, then, is not only essential to drive all-important engagement. It is also the secret sauce that gives sites like TikTok an edge over competitors. As long as there are only 24 hours in a day, social networks will have to fight for their slice of this zero-sum pie. 

One True Timeline

The problem is, algorithms are not all equal. One answer, the one proposed by the lawmakers behind this bill, is to offer a simple chronological timeline, but that's as arbitrary as the algorithms it might replace. The problem isn't algorithms. The problem is the intention behind them. 

"Algorithms are, in their simplest form, just a set of rules," data scientist and 'nano-influencer,' Joshua Estrin, Ph.D., told Lifewire via email. "Therefore, any set of rules' algorithmic' or 'chronological' is still arguably an algorithm. Are they destroying the world? No, they are simply a giant digital rule book, and despite what most people say, most of us feel better when we know that we are not simply living in random chaos."

Black couple checking their phones while standing outside

Shawn Fields / Unsplash

Right now, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are focused on driving user engagement, and the easiest way to do this is to make people angry. We even have names for the behavior that this encourages. "Doomscrolling" is "the action of continually scrolling through and reading depressing or worrying content on a social media or news site," says the Oxford Dictionary of English. 

A true chronological timeline might be free from manipulation, but it might also be so dull that people stop using it. That's good news for Facebook haters, but as we mentioned, people like their algorithmic feeds. And if, as this bill proposes, the chronological timeline is only provided as an option, it won't take long for everything to get back to how it is now. 

And the kicker? If you really hate the algorithm, you can use a third-party app to view your account. Most non-Twitter Twitter apps offer this by default, and there are even some Instagram viewers. 

In the end, though, it's going to take more than lawmakers mandating a single alternative view to fix the problems caused by social media algorithms. Not until they are made open to scrutiny will we have any control.

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