Humans vs. Cyborgs: Four Ways @NYTimes Has Changed This Week

On Monday, New York Times social media editors Lexi Mainland and Liz Heron announced from the @NYTimes account that all week long, they would be engaging in a social experiment: the automated @NYTimes Twitter account would be complemented by a handwritten approach, with  Mainland and Heron taking turns writing tweets. Heron told Poynter that the experiment “is about changing the perception, and it’s about being a little more strategic about what we put out there — finding the most engaging content.”

According to Heron, Times staffers have joined in with the automated feed before, but this is the first time it has been totally turned off. So how has @NYTimes changed since the humans at the Times usurped the cyborgs? As it turns out, the differences between the automated feed and the handwritten one are pretty stark. For avid Twitter users, some of these changes may seem a little duh-worthy, but for a news organization with a notoriously ambivalent relationship with social media, these changes may represent an important attitudinal shift in regards to social networking.


The most obvious difference between the two feeds is that the one manned by Heron and Mainland boasts many retweets.  Since the experiment began on Monday, the editors have retweeted several Times reporters, including Brian Stelter and Tom Jolly, as well as users simply tweeting about NYTimes stories. By implementing retweets, the editors can curate opinions and links to other stories, effectively constructing a more interesting and robust feed.

2. @ Replies

What’s lost in an automated feed is the sense of connection that Twitter cultivates. Conversations and opinions, while truncated to fit into 140 characters, blossom on the platform; with an automated account, the feed appears one-sided, and doesn’t allow for engagement in the conversation surrounding the tweeted articles. By employing a real person to manage the account, conversation can become more fluid, and issues or concerns that may arise around a particular article or tweet can be acknowledged and resolved head on.

3. Personality

The automated feed simply culls headlines from the front page and links users to the related articles, which can lead to a pretty dry feed. Human management of a Twitter feed means wit can shine, making tweets more interesting and users more likely to interact with them. Fascinating and poignant details that weren’t included in the headline can be applied to make a link more clickable. Personality is a major driver for popular Twitter feeds; without it, your account is little more than a RSS feed.

4. Hashtags

Hashtags are a key way to organize information surrounding specific topics on Twitter. The automated feed doesn’t employ them, but the editors have been appending relevant hashtags to tweets so that users interested in a certain topic can view the tweets curated in their search. By using hashtags you can broaden an article’s reach, giving it a better chance of being viewed by a Twitter user not following @NYTimes.

We’re only three days in, so it remains to be seen how effective this human approach will be. While the experiment may seem like a step in the right direction, we have seen complaints from followers disappointed with the changes. But as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman argues, this experiment “is really more of a demonstration: an effort by the social media staff to prove to the rest of the newsroom that the paper’s main Twitter feed deserves additional resources to maintain this human-driven, personal approach.” We eagerly await the end result.