How to play Twitter for You’s algorithm, according to a user who says he did

  • Ryan Broderick noted that engagement on his tweets has plummeted over the past few months.
  • He closely monitored which tweets landed on Twitter’s For You tab, including those from Elon Musk.
  • The first tweet applying his hypothesis received over 1,500 retweets and about half a million views.

A few months ago, Ryan Broderick noted that the engagement on his tweets “fell off a cliff.”

“I don’t want to blow my own horn, but I’ve had a lot of regular engagement on Twitter,” he told Insider. “I had about 60,000 followers and they seemed to respond when I posted something.”

Broderick, who writes regularly about the web in his substack newsletter Garbage Day, estimates that he gets a few hundred to about a thousand retweets on his posts once a week or every two weeks. That has been the case for several years.

Broderick started writing Garbage Day in 2019 and it became a substack release last year. He was senior tech reporter at Buzzfeed before being fired for plagiarism in June 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported. Broderick didn’t comment on his Buzzfeed exit.

Broderick doesn’t like to dwell on his numbers – “Because it’s so lame” – but around the time Elon Musk bought Twitter, he noticed his retweets were down to about 5 per tweet; 10 if he really tried to push her. According to Platformer, Musk also complained about his own commitment and fired an employee because of it.

“I was really discouraged because as a freelancer and as someone who is independent, Twitter has been such a main way to promote my stuff,” he said. “I looked for alternatives and kind of gave up.”

Musk made many changes to the site, including a For You tab unveiled in January that became the Twitter equivalent of Instagram’s Explore page or TikTok’s For You feed.

But when the Twitter CEO announced another change to the platform in February, regarding the number of blocks and the alleged impact on Twitter’s “recommendation algorithm,” Broderick gave Twitter another shot — this time paying closer attention to viral patterns tweets.

After adjusting the format of his posts and his tweeting habits, Broderick’s first tweet using his methods received over 1,500 retweets and about half a million views. The second post was retweeted about 8,000 times and received 13.8 million views as of Friday.

Broderick published his hypothesis in his newsletter and on Twitter. The post received 600 retweets and 1.3 million views, landing on Twitter’s For You page.

Which tweets went viral?

There were a few things Broderick noticed about tweets on the For You page.

First, the themes tended to be evergreen and fundamental. One example he gave was Derek Guy, the menswear tweeter who inexplicably started appearing on everyone’s Twitter.

“My timeline was also full of gimmick accounts, but especially ones that focused on very fundamental issues,” Broderick wrote. “So my working theory was that the For You algorithm originally started with accounts tagged with Twitter topics, the sorting tool the platform created in 2019.”

Broderick also saw that Twitter’s algorithm was prioritizing “already viral” content, which he thinks could be why everyone was seeing the same tweets. This includes quote tweets or tweets that are trending topics.

Video was another type of media that Broderick noticed the platform kept prioritizing.

“If I had to sum this all up very, very succinctly, based on what I’ve been trying to reconstruct, the For You tab seems to want people to quote tweets and reply to posts [viral] videos.”

Clues from Elon Musk’s tweeting habits

Musk, who keeps track of his own Twitter view counts and fires tweets, also provided Broderick with a clue: The Twitter CEO was constantly replying to his own tweets.

Broderick clarified during the interview that Musk doesn’t just do typical Twitter threads.

“He tweeted and then waited about 54 minutes or so, which is a strange amount of time. And you can go through his timeline and see it — just wait a bit and then just reply to the tweets with additional comments,” he said.

Put the hypothesis into action

Broderick’s first thread to go viral, at least compared to his typical engagement, wasn’t as pointed or intentional in methodology, but he wrote about a topic that’s having its moment and about which he’s very stubborn.

“To be perfectly honest, I wanted to watch Ant-Man and was really angry about a tweet I saw about AI,” he said. (He thinks the idea of ​​AI becoming sentient is total “bullshit” and decided to post a thread.)

His tweet became the first post to break 1,000 retweets since November.

About a week later, Broderick came across a video showing the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. Marvel movies were another subject Broderick was really passionate about, so he decided to put his theory to the test again.

If you want to go viral, “it’s always best to focus on something you genuinely care about,” he wrote in his newsletter.

This time he quoted the video he saw, tweeted, replied to his own post and spent about 45 minutes replying to other commenters and starting a dialogue.

“The tweet went nuts overnight,” Broderick wrote in his newsletter. “Over 8,000 retweets, millions of ‘views’ and I instantly remembered why going viral on Twitter sucks.”

Broderick cites his view count with caution as it’s unclear exactly how accurate the numbers are, but he noted that the numbers appear when a tweet gets stuck in the “For You” tab.

“That suggests to me that it’s like getting stuck in some weird automated system, but that’s all anecdotal, I’m not sure if that’s true,” he said.

Broderick’s thread explaining his hypothesis — or “Occam’s razor-sharp assumption” — under a thousand retweets but garnered 1.3 million views.

This Insider reporter saw Broderick’s tweets about Marvel and his theory about the Twitter algorithm in the For You tab before following or interviewing Broderick.

Virality is the problem

If Broderick finds a fix for underperforming tweets, it could benefit independent writers like himself or aspiring content creators.

But he said his hypothesis only points to a problem with Musk’s new Twitter.

His overarching criticism is that Twitter now appears to be relying on a “basic algorithm” that solely prioritizes engagement over sentiment. That’s partly why he said vanilla tweets like “Best movies you’ve seen in 2021” or Favorite album don’t go viral.

“You have to be a bit controversial,” he admitted. “And that goes for viral content in any algorithmic environment, whether it’s YouTube, Facebook, Instagram. Things that are 100% comfortable don’t usually go viral.”

Broderick believes this emphasis on engagement undermines what made Twitter so useful in the beginning, not only for journalists but also for users who wanted to stay informed.

What set Twitter apart and made the platform useful was that users could open the app and see what’s happening in the world, he said. “And by the time Elon Musk takes over, almost all of the site’s innovations should make this experience more seamless.”

Broderick encourages the idea that other people are using his method to try to trick Twitter’s algorithm and further highlight the problem.

“Twitter could be better and hopefully it will get better when enough people play around with this algorithm, but I don’t know,” he said.

Twitter and Musk immediately responded to a request for comment.

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