You don't have to push a button to send a signal. Services like Twitter keep tabs on your behavior even if you aren't prodding your touchscreen to "like" or "retweet" things, and they use all that precious data to serve you #content that's tailor-made to attract your eyeballs.
As Slate's Will Oremus explains in a new feature about Twitter's algorithms, the company pays attention to a variety of cues from its users to deliver information using its "best tweets" and "in case you missed it" functions. A lot of this is expected—you're more likely to see tweets that are recent and frequently retweeted, or from an author you engage with a lot — but one element should catch your eye: "How much time you spend reading tweets by that author, even if you don’t engage."
In other words, Twitter pays attention to what you're paying attention to, even if you never tap a button in the app. If you often linger on beautiful tweets from author X, Twitter is more likely to immediately show you tweets from that person when you open the app in the morning.
Nothing about this is particularly surprising, though Oremus notes this is "the first public peek into the algorithm’s workings." Facebook, for example, draws upon roughly 8 zillion different data points to ensure it's serving content to you effectively — including how long you spend reading a story that you encountered on your News Feed.
But the story about Twitter's algorithms should serve to remind you that, yeah, you're basically always being watched by your favorite social networks in a variety of ways that don't even occur to you. Which is fine, sometimes! A social network that understands how you consume information is a social network that knows how to spoon-feed it to you just right.
As Oremus notes:
Taking more into consideration than retweets and favorites is part of this effort. A Twitter spokesperson explained to me that a Bay Area resident might never interact with the Caltrain account she follows for its service updates. But Twitter’s software can learn over time that she tends to stop scrolling long enough to read a Caltrain tweet before moving on. It could then make sure to show her a noteworthy Caltrain update in her ranked timeline during commute hours.
That's handy. But of course, the "dark side" to all of this is that a company that knows how to serve you content with laser precision also knows how to target you for marketing.
Cause for alarm? Not necessarily — but it's worth keeping in the back of your mind as more and more of our lives unfurl across social media. You may think you're gazing into a void when you're scrolling through your phone, but in 2017, that void is gazing right back.