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Why does Twitter think I want stale sports highlights?

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A report on the most pressing issue in social media.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

At 10:11 PM Central on Tuesday, November 10, 2020, Twitter decided to put this tweet into my timeline:

Because I spend entirely too much of my online time delighting in the struggles of well-funded, historically important football programs, Twitter thinks I want to see more content about the Michigan Wolverines than I actually do. But that’s my fault, not the algorithm’s. Its job is to analyze what I talk about and try to give me what it thinks I’m interested in, not pull me aside and say “Boy, you’re kind of a mess, huh?”

I cannot let Twitter entirely off the hook, however. Even in the world where they’ve accurately identified me as a Michigan fan, why do they think this is what I’d want to see? Indiana won this game by 17 points, seizing their first win over the Wolverines since 1987 and sending Michigan tumbling into the Big Ten East basement. (Many thanks to 0-3 Penn State for serving as a soft landing place.)

Look, it’s a lovely touchdown. Had I, as a fictitious Michigan fan, seen it while scrolling Twitter on Saturday shortly after it was scored, I’m sure it would have brought me much happiness as I took my goldendoodle, Nimitz, out for a poop. Then I would have returned to my home, watched the Hoosiers go on a 17-0 run, and stomped around my office, which houses all my political science textbooks (I manage pharmaceutical-focused investment portolios) while Michigan failed to get within two scores in the second half.

This was not an isolated incident. If you talk about sports on Twitter with some regularity, you will get promoted tweets from games that ended days or weeks earlier, devoid of any context that any time has passed. I’ve seen highlights from an MLB playoff series after one team had already advanced to the next round and clips from a tennis tournament semifinal posted well after the championship match concluded. These little blips in the Twitter time-space continuum are both funny and jarring. It’s like getting a Christmas card postmarked in April, and the sender never mentions how late they’re sending it.

Why do these Tweets happen? The answer, as best I can tell, is that people are very stupid about spending money online.

An advertiser (State Farm, in this case) says “Yes, I would like to run my spots around sports highlights, a thing that people will stop and watch.” They pay the content provider (here, the Big Ten Network) to attach their ad to videos of big moments and get them in front of a minimum number of people. All parties hope they’ll hit that audience minimum soon after the highlight happens. But sometimes videos on the internet don’t do well, as inconceivable as that may sound. As of the time I’m writing this, that Big Ten Network tweet only had 12 retweets and four quote tweets.

Advertising contracts are sacred, however, and must be fulfilled. So the Big Ten Network pays Twitter to promote that tweet, pushing it into timelines that never asked for it, days after it might have been interesting. Weeks later, someone will present State Farm with a report celebrating that all the required metrics were met, if not surpassed, and the company will strike another deal to surround sports highlights on Twitter, restarting the Circle of Internet Monetization.

That’s not a particularly charitable explanation, so let’s explore an alternative possibility: Advertisers are doing this on purpose.

Consider that State Farm’s job is to sell me insurance, not to give me timely updates on what’s going on in college football or make sure I have a sensible and logical Twitter experience. (As if such a thing were possible.) Putting an ad around a highlight in the middle of a Saturday only works if other games don’t pull the audience’s attention away. And it’s useless on Saturday night if the highlight was just one brief moment of joy for the losing team before they got stomped.

Promote that same highlight on a Tuesday night and it really stands out from the crowd. In fact, promoting a tweet that shows the losing team doing something good does this job even more effectively. I likely would have scrolled right by an Indiana touchdown video that popped up on my timeline three days after their win. But a Michigan score being celebrated was just too absurd to ignore. Consequently, I watched that State Farm video and helped the Big Ten Network meet its contractual obligations.

Hell, I just wrote an entire-ass post about this. That’s advertising neither the Big Ten Network nor their partners had to pay a dime for. Could it be that the true dummy in this whole arrangement … is me?