- Ryan Broderick has noticed that engagement on his tweets has dropped significantly in recent months.
- He looked closely at the tweets that landed on the Twitter For You tab, including those from Elon Musk.
- The first tweet using her hypothesis received more than 1,500 retweets and about half a million views.
A few months ago, Ryan Broderick noticed participation on his tweets “falling off a cliff.”
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I had a regular engagement on Twitter,” he told Insider. “I had 60,000-something followers and they seemed to respond when I would post things.”
On average, Broderick, who writes regularly about the internet in his Substack newsletter, Garbage Day, estimated that he received a few hundred to about a thousand retweets on his posts once a week or every other week. It has been like that for several years.
Broderick began writing Garbage Day in 2019 and it became a Substack publication last year. He was a senior tech reporter at Buzzfeed before he was fired in June 2020 for plagiarism, The Wall Street Journal reported. Broderick has not commented on his departure from Buzzfeed.
Broderick doesn’t like to dwell too much on his numbers – “Because it’s so lame” – but around the time Elon Musk bought Twitter, he noticed his retweets dropped to about 5 per tweet; 10 if he really tried to push them. Musk also lamented his own involvement and fired an employee about it, according to Platformer.
“I was disrespected because, as a freelancer and an independent person, Twitter was like the main way to advertise my stuff,” he said. “I was looking for other options and kind of gave up on it.”
Musk made several changes to the site, including unveiling a For You tab in January that has become the Twitter equivalent of Instagram’s Explore page or TikTok’s For You feed.
But when Twitter’s CEO announced another change to the platform in February, regarding block counting and how Twitter’s “recommended algorithm” was apparently affected, Broderick took another shot at Twitter — this time at paying closer attention to the patterns of viral tweets.
After changing 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 has been 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 and landed on the For You Twitter page.
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 27, 2023
Which Tweets were going viral?
Broderick had noticed a few things about tweets on the For You page.
For one, the topics were usually evergreen and basic. An example he gave was Derek Guy, the men’s tweeter who inexplicably started appearing on everyone’s Twitter.
“My timeline was also full of gimmick accounts, but, specifically, ones focused on very basic topics,” Broderick wrote. “So my working theory was that the For You algorithm first launched using accounts tagged for Twitter Topics, the sorting tool created by the platform in 2019.”
Broderick also saw that Twitter’s algorithm was prioritizing “already viral” content, which he suspects is why everyone was seeing the same tweets. This includes quoted tweets or tweets that are trending topics.
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 27, 2023
Another form of media that Broderick noticed the scene was prioritizing was video.
“If I had to sum it up very succinctly, the For You tab seems to be based on what I wanted to reverse engineer, asking people to tweet and reply to posts about [viral] videos.”
Tips from Elon Musk’s tweeting habits
Musk, whose own Twitter attitude was fueled by his tweets count and tweets, also tipped Broderick: The Twitter CEO kept replying to his own tweets.
Broderick specified during the interview that Musk wasn’t just doing typical Twitter threads.
“What he was doing was tweeting and then waiting like 54 minutes or something, which is like a weird amount of time. And you can go through his timeline and see it – waiting a little bit of time and then responding to the tweets. with additional comments,” he said.
Putting the hypothesis to work
Broderick’s first thread that went viral was, at least relative to his usual activity, less pointed or deliberate in methodology, but he wrote about a topic that is both current and highly opinionated about.
“To be completely honest, I was walking to go see Ant-Man, and I was really angry about a tweet I saw about AI,” he said. (He believes the idea that sentient AI will disappear is complete “bullshit” and decided to write a thread.)
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 16, 2023
His tweet was the first post to break 1,000 retweets since November.
About a week later, Broderick came across a video that showed the ending of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Marvel movies were another subject that Broderick was really passionate about so he decided to test his theory again.
If you want to go viral, “it’s always best to focus on something you really care about,” he wrote in his newsletter.
This time, he tweeted the video he saw, replied to his own post, and spent about 45 minutes replying to other commenters and started a conversation.
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 25, 2023
“The great tweet came overnight,” Broderick wrote in his newsletter. “Over 8,000 retweets, millions of ‘comments,’ and, instantly, I remembered why going viral on Twitter is so bad.”
Broderick cautions his opinion because it’s unclear how accurate the numbers are, but he noted that the numbers showed when a tweet gets stuck on 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 hypothesis” – received less than a thousand retweets but 1.3 million views.
This Insider reporter saw Broderick’s tweets about Marvel and his theory about the Twitter algorithm on the For You tab before Broderick followed him or interviewed him.
Virality is the problem
If Broderick found a solution to underperforming titles, it could benefit freelance writers like himself or content creators.
But he said his hypothesis only points to a problem with Musk’s new Twitter.
His overarching critique is that Twitter now appears to rely on a “primitive algorithm” that prioritizes engagement over sentiment. That’s partly why he said vanilla tweets like “the best movies you saw in 2021” or your favorite album won’t go viral.
“You have to be a bit controversial,” he admitted. “And this is kind of true about viral content in any algorithmic environment, whether it’s YouTube, Facebook, Instagram. Things that are 100% happy, usually don’t go viral.”
Broderick believes this emphasis on engagement undermines what made Twitter so useful in the first place not just for journalists but 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 was happening around the world, he said. “And until Elon Musk took it over, almost every innovation on the site was to make that experience more seamless.”
Broderick encourages the idea that others use his method to try to game Twitter’s algorithm and draw attention to the problem.
“Twitter could be better and hopefully if a lot of people mess with this algorithm it will be better but I don’t know,” he said.
Twitter and Musk immediately responded to a request for comment.