- Ryan Broderick has noticed that engagement on his tweets has dropped sharply in recent months.
- He took a closer look at what tweets landed on Twitter’s For You tab, including those from Elon Musk.
- The first tweet using his hypothesis got more than 1,500 retweets and about half a million views.
A few months ago, Ryan Broderick noticed engagement in his tweets “fell off a cliff.”
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I have a regular amount of engagement on Twitter,” he told Insider. “I have 60,000-something followers and they seem to react when I post things.”
On average, Broderick, who writes regularly about the internet in his Substack newsletter, Garbage Day, estimates he receives several hundred to a thousand retweets on his posts once a week or every other week. It was like that for several years.
Broderick began writing Garbage Day in 2019 and it became a published publication on Substack last year. He was a senior tech reporter at Buzzfeed before being fired in June 2020 for plagiarism, The Wall Street Journal reported. Broderick did not comment on his exit to Buzzfeed.
Broderick doesn’t like to be careful with his numbers – “Because it’s so lame” – but around the time Elon Musk bought Twitter, he noticed that his retweets dropped to about 5 per tweet; 10 if he really tried to push them. Musk also lamented about his own engagement and fired an employee for it, according to Platformer.
“I’m very sad because, as a freelancer and as an independent person, Twitter is like a main way to advertise my stuff,” he said. “I’m looking for alternatives and kind of giving it up.”
Musk has made several changes to the site, including a For You tab unveiled in January that has become Twitter’s 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 counts and how they affect Twitter’s “recommendation algorithm,” Broderick gave Twitter another shot — this time giving a closer attention to the patterns of viral tweets.
After tweaking the format of his posts and tweeting habits, Broderick’s first tweet using his methods garnered over 1,500 retweets and nearly 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 Twitter’s For You page.
—Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 27, 2023
Which Tweets went viral?
There are a few things Broderick noticed about the tweets on the For You page.
One, the topics are mostly evergreen and basic. An example he gives is Derek Guy, the menswear tweeter who inexplicably started showing up on Twitter for everyone.
“My timeline is also full of gimmick accounts, but, especially, those focused on basic topics,” Broderick wrote. “So my working theory turns out that the For You algorithm was initially launched using accounts tagged for Twitter Topics, the sorting tool created by the platform in 2019.”
Broderick also found that Twitter’s algorithm prioritizes “viral” content, which he suspects may be the reason why everyone is seeing the same tweets. This includes quote tweets or tweets that are trending topics.
—Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 27, 2023
Videos are another type of media that Broderick noticed the platform continues to prioritize.
“If I had to sum it all up, very briefly, the For You tab, based on what I’ve tried to reverse engineer, seems to want people to quote tweets and respond to posts about. [viral] videos.”
Clues from Elon Musk’s tweeting habits
Musk, who is worried about his own Twitter view counts and blasting tweets, also gave Broderick a clue: The Twitter CEO keeps replying to his own tweets.
Broderick explained during the interview that Musk isn’t just doing typical Twitter threads.
“What he did was tweet and then wait like 54 minutes or something, which was like a weird time. with more comments,” he said.
Putting the hypothesis to work
Broderick’s first thread that went viral, at least relative to his usual engagement, wasn’t as pointed or deliberate in approach, but he was writing about a topic that had occasion and one that he thought deeply about.
“Actually, I went to see Ant-Man, and I was really upset about a tweet I saw about AI,” he said. (He believed the idea that AI could be conscious was “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 ago, Broderick found a video showing the end of “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Marvel movies are another topic that Broderick really likes so he decided to test his theory again.
If you want to go viral “it’s always best to focus on something you sincerely care about,” he writes in his newsletter.
This time, he quote-tweeted the video he saw, responded to his own post, and spent about 45 minutes responding to other commenters and starting a dialogue.
—Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 25, 2023
“The tweet went nuts overnight,” Broderick wrote in his newsletter. “Over 8,000 retweets, millions of ‘views,’ and, instantly, I remembered why going viral on Twitter is bad.”
Broderick cites his view count with caution because it’s unclear how accurate the numbers are, but he notes that the numbers show when a tweet is stuck in the For You tab.
“That to me indicates that it’s like being 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 assumption” – got less than a thousand retweets but clocked in at 1.3 million views.
This Insider reporter saw Broderick’s tweets about Marvel and his theory about Twitter’s algorithm in the For You tab before following or interviewing Broderick.
Virality is the problem
If Broderick finds a solution to bad 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 main criticism is that Twitter now appears to rely on a “basic algorithm” that prioritizes engagement over sentiment. This is partly why he says vanilla tweets like “the best movies you saw in 2021” or favorite album won’t go viral.
“You must be a bit controversial,” he admitted. “And this is true about viral content in any algorithmic environment, whether YouTube, Facebook, Instagram.
Broderick believes this emphasis on engagement undermines what made Twitter useful in the first place not only to journalists but to users who want to stay informed.
What sets Twitter apart and makes the platform useful is that users can open the app and see what’s happening in the world, he said. “And until Elon Musk took it over, almost all of the site’s innovations were to make the experience smoother.”
Broderick encouraged the idea of other people using his method to try to game Twitter’s algorithm and further highlight the problem.
“Twitter can be better and hopefully if enough 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.