Twitter is at its best when it seems like everyone is tuned into the same thing at once: a presidential debate, the NBA finals, anything Kanye West does. But the company has done very little to proactively generate these “live” shared experiences. The features it’s built for people interested in ongoing events — Trending, Moments, live video, curated timelines, and search — are almost entirely disconnected.
All this will change within the next few weeks, however, as Twitter begins building dedicated pages for news events (think: Hawaii’s volcano eruption) that will bring everything together. Inside these pages, curated timelines will show the best and latest tweets about an event, live video will show up at the top when relevant, and a compose field will sit at the bottom for people to chime in. Twitter will promote these pages everywhere: in bubbles at the top of people’s timelines, in search, in its Explore tab, and via personalized push notifications. Moments will be almost entirely absorbed into this new feature, in function but not in name, as its curators will now work alongside algorithms to pick which tweets to feature.
“This change we’re working on is designed to make it as easy to follow an event as it is to follow a person,” Twitter Product VP Keith Coleman said in a briefing at Twitter headquarters Tuesday. “Without following accounts, simply by tapping one tile, you’re getting the best of the conversation on Twitter.”
The changes are part of a “much larger arc in the transformation of Twitter,” Coleman said, adding that Twitter wants these event pages to exist for anything that’s happening in the world: “Every episode of every TV show, anything that’s going on that’s remotely newsworthy, every game of every sport — that’s the dream we’re heading towards.”
The rationale behind such a product release is clear: Twitter wants its existing users to be able to find information about events as quickly as possible, creating more situations where they feel like part of a community following an event together in real time. For new and casual users, it can be even more useful, helping them quickly dive into an event as it’s happening without having to build a follow list, one of Twitter’s most arduous experiences.
If the message sounds familiar, it’s because it’s quite similar to Twitter’s pitch when it introduced Moments nearly three years ago. “You have to work as a user to go and find the best stuff, but [we] can do it easily and can package it richly,” then–Twitter product head Kevin Weil told BuzzFeed News at the time. But there’s one key difference: Moments has been used largely as a recap tool, showing people what they missed. This new feature will show people what’s happening in the moment, giving them a chance to effortlessly plug into the “live” element of Twitter, which is the platform’s competitive advantage over other social networks.
Twitter provided little detail about how it plans to monetize the event pages, though it’s not hard to imagine sponsored ads will eventually start showing up inside them.
Twitter is sure to grapple with questions traditional newsrooms face as it rolls this feature out. Its human curators and algorithms will have to decide whether sources are trustworthy when weighing whether or not to to include their tweets in an event page. They will have to exercise news judgment when deciding whether to create an event page for news in the first place. And the company will need to introduce safeguards to ward off the people who will inevitably try to game its algorithmically-created event pages, just as they game trending hashtags.
Coleman admitted that Twitter’s systems aren’t always perfect. “We don’t always tell the difference between chicken curry and Steph Curry,” he said. But he and Twitter’s Curation VP Joanna Geary drew the line at accepting traditional news responsibilities, which is odd given that Twitter has embraced its role as a media company. “We’re not a newsroom,” Geary said. “We’re there to reflect the conversations that are already happening on the platform.”
As any Twitter power user can attest, those conversations can be special when you join them at the right time. So Twitter might have a great new feature on its hands, just as long as it can exercise sound news judgement and mitigate the bad actions of some who will surely try to ruin it.
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Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
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