Lists are the solution to Twitter’s timeline mess.

What you will see on your Twitter timeline can be put into three boxes:

  • Original content, written by [person you follow]
  • Content by potentially random person, retweeted by [person you follow]
  • Content by potentially random person, liked by [person you follow]

Especially the third category can add a lot of messiness to your timeline, because people tend to like tweets which are not often part of the category of topics you followed the person for in the first place. Besides

  • Promoted content, written by [potentially random person],

Twitter adds even more vague categories of content in order to, I assume, boost engagement. Now you will also find a received a reply category in your timeline. And to be clear: I neither follow the person who wrote the original tweet, nor the person who wrote the answer:

  • Original content, written by [potentially random person], replied by [potentially random person].

The Twitter timeline looks less and less like the list of content I originally signed up for. I follow a group of people because I am interested in their thoughts, ideas and reflections. While these people might retweet content that they agree with or find interesting themselves, it gets even more vague the further you look into tweets people liked territory. From birthday wishes to promotions to random stuff: I have a hard time getting value out of this content. With the introduction of received a reply, Twitter adds even more random posts to my timeline which are further and further away from the content I originally signed up for.

Topics are not the answer

Twitter is aware of this issue and introduced Topics which users can follow in addition to people. Machine learning technology will find the most interesting content around a predefined topic and shows them to you both in a separate view, outside your regular timeline.

There are so many good conversations happening on Twitter, it may be hard to find what’s most relevant to you from time to time. […] we use machine learning to find related Tweets from these conversations. This could mean they Tweet a lot about the Topic or interact a lot with Tweets about the Topic. From there, we find the Tweets that are most interesting to those people, using algorithms, keywords, and additional signals.

“About Topics on Twitter” FAQ

Today, topics are not specific enough to be very useful. For example within the category of politics, there is only one single topic you can follow: 2020 US Presidential Election. The feature is limited, slow, rather US centric and it takes control away from the user, because all Topics are entirely defined and curated by Twitter herself. Still, Topics add a new way of using Twitter: You can follow general conversations around a larger topic. Topics will always be more general than conversations around very specific hashtags, but maybe people want to have quick access to what is currently going on in Veganism. For that, topics are great.

Leave the timetime, work with lists

Twitter offers a very interesting, yet underrepresented feature, that I see as the better solution to crowded timelines: Lists. Anyone can create a list, for example “coworkers from my company” just including people you work with. Or “Tech researchers” only containing the most interesting people from the industry you care about.

The great thing about lists is that they only contain original tweets and retweets, so compared to your main timeline, lists are a lot less messy. And while everyone can create lists, everyone can follow everyone’s lists. Dantley Davis, CDO of Twitter, follows 16 lists, created by very different people:

The main issue with lists on Twitter is the fact that you can not search them. There is no discovery experience anywhere to be found that allows me to follow a popular list of “epidemiologists” because that is what I care about. Topics are not a solution: I don’t want all the opinions from anyone around Covid, I want the latest posts from the people that are experts in the field. The only way to access lists today is by visiting a user profile and looking for the lists this person follows or created. And only then you will see if they even make use of the feature or not.

From a user experience perspective, Lists are comparable to Spotify playlists. As a user, when you want to listed to rock music without having a particular band in mind, a playlist is the answer. Spotify spends a lot of energy themselves into curating playlists for all kinds of moods and environments. But every Spotify user can create and curate playlists and every other user can follow. The number of followers will give you an idea about the quality of a playlist. The same thing could work with Lists.

If Twitter turned Lists into a central element of the user experience, the product as a whole would be a lot less confusing to new users. Just select the Topics you are interested in and subscribe to some Lists, and you get a predictable and understandable content structure. Today, Twitter is harder and harder to enjoy, while it has so much potential to be the one place for all interesting content out there.