- Ryan Broderick noticed engagement on his tweets sharply dropped in recent months.
- He closely watched what tweets landed on Twitter’s For You tab, including those from Elon Musk.
- The first tweet employing his hypothesis got over 1,500 retweets and about half a million views.
A few months ago, Ryan Broderick noticed engagement on his tweets “fell off a cliff.”
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I had a regular amount of engagement on Twitter,” he told Insider. “I had 60,000-something followers and they seemed to react when I would post stuff.”
On average, Broderick, who writes regularly about the internet in his Substack newsletter, Garbage Day, estimated he received a few hundred to around a thousand retweets on his posts once a week or every other week. It had been that way for several years.
Broderick began writing Garbage Day in 2019 and it became a Substack featured publication 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 Buzzfeed exit.
Broderick doesn’t like to dwell on his numbers too much — “Because it’s so lame” — but around the time Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he noticed his retweets dropped to around 5 per tweet; 10 if he really tried to push them. Musk also lamented about his own engagement and fired an employee over it, according to Platformer.
“I was really dispirited because, as a freelancer and as someone who’s independent, Twitter was like a main way of advertising my stuff,” he said. “I was looking for alternatives and kind of giving up on it.”
Musk made many changes to the site, including a For You tab unveiled in January that became Twitter’s 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 block counts and how it was supposedly impacting Twitter’s “recommendation algorithm,” Broderick gave Twitter another shot — this time paying closer attention to the patterns of viral tweets.
After tweaking the format of his posts and tweeting habits, Broderick’s first tweet employing his methods got over 1,500 retweets and about half a million views. The second post got 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 were going viral?
There were a few things Broderick noticed about tweets on the For You page.
One, the topics were typically evergreen and basic. An example he gave was Derek Guy, the menswear tweeter who inexplicably started to appear 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 became that the For You algorithm initially launched using accounts tagged for Twitter Topics, the sorting tool the platform created in 2019.”
Broderick also saw that Twitter’s algorithm was prioritizing “already-viral” content, which he suspects might be the reason why everyone was seeing the same tweets. This includes quote tweets or tweets that are trending topics.
—Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 27, 2023
Videos were another type of media that Broderick noticed the platform kept prioritizing.
“If I had to sum it all up very, very succinctly, the For You tab, based on what I’ve been trying to reverse engineer, seems to want people to quote tweet and reply to posts about [viral] videos.”
Clues from Elon Musk’s tweeting habits
Musk, who has been preoccupied with his own Twitter view counts and firing away tweets, also provided Broderick with a clue: The Twitter CEO kept replying to his own tweets.
Broderick specified during the interview that Musk wasn’t just making 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 — just waiting a little bit of time and then just replying to the tweets with additional comments,” he said.
Putting the hypothesis to work
Broderick’s first thread that went viral, at least relative to his typical engagement, wasn’t as pointed or deliberate in methodology, but he did write about a subject that’s having its moment and one that he’s highly opinionated about.
“To be totally 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 AI will go sentient is total “bullshit” and decided to write up a thread.)
—Ryan Broderick (@broderick) February 16, 2023
His tweet was the first post that broke 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 topic Broderick was genuinely 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 sincerely care about,” he wrote in his newsletter.
This time, he quote-tweeted the video he saw, replied to his own post, and spent about 45 minutes replying to other commenters and started 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, immediately, I remembered why going viral on Twitter sucks so bad.”
Broderick cites his view count with caution because it’s unclear how accurate the numbers are, but he noticed that the numbers indicated when a tweet gets stuck on the For You tab.
“That to me indicates that it’s like getting stuck in some weird automated system, but that’s all anecdotal, I’m not really sure if that’s true,” he said.
Broderick’s thread explaining his hypothesis — or “Occam’s razor assumption” — got under a thousand retweets but clocked in 1.3 million views.
This Insider reporter saw Broderick’s tweets about Marvel and his theory about Twitter’s algorithm on the For You tab before following or interviewing Broderick.
The virality is the problem
If Broderick found a solution to underperforming tweets then it could benefit independent writers like himself or aspiring content creators.
But he said that his hypothesis only points out a problem with Musk’s new Twitter.
His overarching critique is that Twitter now appears to rely on a “basic algorithm” that purely prioritizes engagement over sentiment. It’s partly why he said that vanilla tweets like “the best movies you saw in 2021” or favorite album will not go viral.
“You kind of have to be a little 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% agreeable don’t typically go viral.”
Broderick believes this emphasis on engagement undermines what made Twitter so useful in the beginning not only to journalists but to 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 in the world, he said. “And up until Elon Musk took it over, almost all of the innovations of the site were to make that experience more seamless.”
Broderick encourages the idea of other people using his method to try to game Twitter’s algorithm and further highlight the problem.
“Twitter could 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 did immediately respond to a request for comment.