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Twitter tweaks its timeline in pursuit of more users

Twitter will let people turn on a setting that lets popular tweets related to people you follow show up first in your timeline. | AP file photo

SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter is tweaking the way that tweets appear in its users’ timelines in its latest attempt to broaden the appeal of its messaging service.

The change announced Wednesday moves Twitter closer to a formula that Facebook uses to determine the order of posts appearing in its users’ news feeds.

It’s a risky move for Twitter because it threatens to infuriate many of its 320 million users who like things the way they are. But the company can’t afford to stand pat with its user growth slowing dramatically and its stock price plummeting by more than 50 percent since co-founder Jack Dorsey returned as CEO last summer.

Investors initially applauded Twitter for shaking things up: Its stock gained 58 cents, or 4 percent, to close at $14.98. But it then shed 13 cents in extended trading after the company released a fourth-quarter report that showed its service didn’t add any users during the final three months of last year.

Like Facebook, Twitter is shifting to a sorting system that relies on algorithms to track which tweets seem to matter most to individual users. Based on that analysis, Twitter will begin featuring tweets that it believes will be most likely to capture a user’s interest at the top of the timeline.

Key things to know about what’s changing

THE MAIN CHANGE — Twitter has been showing tweets from people and organizations you follow in chronological order, with the newest tweets up top. With the change, posts that Twitter deems important will appear on top, even if they are older. What’s underneath will still be presented chronologically.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT? — Twitter defines it as “tweets you are likely to care about most.” The service isn’t revealing the specific formula, but says it will be based on factors such as accounts you interact with most and specific tweets you engage with. It will include only tweets from accounts you follow — not promoted tweets, which companies pay to insert into your feed.

APPEARANCE — These special, top tweets appear on top when you open Twitter’s app or log on to its website. There’s no label at the top or any marker separating these from normal, chronological tweets underneath. But you can tell by the time stamp that they aren’t in real time. When you refresh your feed, you’ll get the chronological tweets back, and these top tweets will move down your timeline and eventually drop off the page.

WHAT ABOUT “WHILE YOU WERE AWAY”? — The “While you were away” feature was created for people who may have spent hours or days away from Twitter. The new top tweets section is targeted at people who aren’t away from Twitter that long, but may follow hundreds or thousands of people and might not see tweets they may find relevant.

GETTING IT — The changes will be offered to everyone on Twitter by the end of Wednesday. You’ll need to go to your settings and choose “Show me the best Tweets first.” Otherwise, nothing happens — for now. Over the next few weeks, Twitter will prompt you to either enable the feature or go to the settings to turn it off.

WILL THERE BE ADS? — No brand can advertise with a promoted tweet in the top tweets section. But promoted tweets will continue to show up in the regular feed. If you follow a brand, a tweet could make it into the top section, just like any other tweet.

PAST CHANGES — This isn’t Twitter’s first tweaking of its timeline. Twitter introduced “While you were away” last year and started allowing advertisers to pay for promoted tweets in 2010.

OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKS — Facebook displays posts based on your connections and activities on Facebook, rather than chronologically, but you can customize the feed in various ways. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, offers a chronological feed.

That is a departure from the traditional presentation of Twitter’s timeline, which has always shown tweets in reverse chronological order so the most recent messages appear at the top of a user’s feed. The real-time feed will now appear below the tweets picked out by Twitter.

Users initially will have the option to turn on the algorithmic system by going into their settings and choosing “Show me the best Tweets first.” That choice began to slowly roll out to Twitter accounts Wednesday.

Twitter plans to automatically convert users’ timelines to the new system, allowing them to turn it off if they want. The revised presentation is a spin-off of a feature called “while you were away” that Twitter introduced about a year ago.

“We think this is a great way to get even more out of Twitter,” Mike Jahr, senior engineering manager for the company, wrote in a blog post.

Although Twitter has built one of the Internet’s best-known communication networks, it has been struggling to attract new users and those who have signed up haven’t stuck around for long because they found it too difficult to find content they like.

During the first nine months of 2015, for instance, Twitter added 28 million users while Instagram, a photo- and video-sharing service owned by Facebook Inc., picked up more than 100 million users. Instagram now has more than 400 million users, making it larger than Twitter even though it is four years younger.

Dorsey, who helped start Twitter Inc. nearly 10 years ago, is hoping the revised presentation of tweets will prove more engaging to newcomers without alienating the messaging service’s most loyal users. He already had to quell an uprising last weekend after news of revised timeline leaked out and triggered an avalanche of posts with the tag “RIPTwitter.”

By making Twitter easier and more engaging to use, Dorsey is also hoping the company can sell more advertising so it can begin to make money for the first time in its history.

The San Francisco company is scheduled to release its financial report for the final three months of last year after the stock market closes Wednesday.

BY MICHAEL LIEDTKE, AP Technology Writer