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Not sure whom to follow? Worry not, Twitter will do it for you

Typically, a user of Twitter chooses whom to follow when they sign up for the micro-blogging service so that tweets from them could appear on their timeline. However, it often happens that new users get confused about the service or how to use it and are unsure whom to follow.

But now, in keeping with its promise to investors in November last year about an “instant timeline” that would provide more relevant and better content to new users, Twitter is testing the same and set to launch it widely.

Typically, a user of Twitter chooses whom to follow when they sign up for the micro-blogging service so that tweets from them could appear on their timeline. However, it often happens that new users get confused about the service or how to use it and are unsure whom to follow.

But now, in keeping with its promise to investors in November last year about an “instant timeline” that would provide more relevant and better content to new users, Twitter is testing the same and set to launch it widely.

According to Vindu Goel, who has written a post about testing the instant timeline on the Bits blog of The New York Times, “While the feature doesn’t solve all of Twitter’s interface problems, there is no question that it’s a huge improvement to the sign-up process. Setting up an account is quick and nearly painless, and you are then plunged into Twitter’s information stream.”

When you sign up for Twitter, you pick a user name and password, and then Twitter asks for access to your smartphone’s contact list. Once you grant that access, the service scans it for people with Twitter accounts and suggests them as people to follow.

Traditionally, whomever you choose to follow at that stage determines what you see on the service. Pick two accounts, for example, and you see every message from those two but nothing else.

But with the instant timeline, says Goel in the blog post, you don’t need to follow anyone. “Twitter analyses your contacts and uses information like who they are and who they follow on Twitter to guess which accounts and topics might interest you. It then shows you those tweets in your feed. So if your friends are foodies, you will see items about recipes and food trends. If they are football lovers or fans of Ellen DeGeneres, you will see National Football League video highlights and tweets from comic actors,” it notes.

Instant timeline is aimed at providing a compelling tweet stream to users without requiring them to follow any Twitter handle at all.

The move comes amidst reports that the popularity of Twitter is waning in comparison to other social sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

If Goel’s review is to be believed, instant timeline might well give a much-needed fillip to the chatter on Twitter—though it may be several months before any significant results show up (on Twitter’s own topline).
He writes, “In my case, the algorithm was eerily accurate at divining my interests. It pulled up tweets by journalists, technology luminaries and news outlets that I regularly follow. But it also added the accounts of San Francisco’s mayor, the comedians David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, and the celebrity chef Thomas Keller—people I don’t follow but probably should.”

Still, it wasn’t perfect, says Goel. “It showed me a lot of basketball and tennis tweets, for example, even though I don’t care much about either sport.”

Besides, there were branded or promoted tweets that appeared from time to time.

According to Goel, the instant timeline has frequent reminders urging you to follow people, including one that stayed at the top of his feed for quite a while. It also has built-in tutorials at strategic points to explain concepts like direct messaging.

The feature, says Goel, appeared to a small percentage of new users signing up on Android phones last week. If the initial testing goes well, the company plans to expand it, with the goal of making an instant timeline the standard experience for all new users within a few months.

This will be a key departure in approach for the company, which has been reluctant to use a computer algorithm to select what information to show whom—something Facebook is said to make ample use of.

But Twitter seems to be moving in a similar direction. Recently, it began offering iPhone users a recap of top tweets they missed while they were away from the service. And it will soon start showing a selection of top content to people visiting the Twitter.com home page, without the current requirement that you must have an account to see anything.

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