Twitter’s quest to create a definition for itself that everybody can understand is turning another corner today. At the top of your timeline — or perhaps even in your notifications — it will alert you to live events and present a curated list of tweets about them. These new screens may include live video, and they are designed to help users find the best and most relevant tweets for ongoing live events, like a big baseball game or breaking news about an earthquake.
Twitter says it may send you a personalized push notification if an event is happening that it believes you’ll be interested in. It will also put those events at the top of the main timeline when they are relevant, along with big pictures and a little text encouraging you to tap in and explore.
The company is redesigning the Explore tab to focus on these new features, and there are new sections dedicated to different interests: Trending, a personalized For You tab, and more specific content areas like News and Sports. Twitter search may also feature big buttons pointing to these new views when you type something into search.
The heart of the redesign is a new screen, which comes with a few interesting features. First, there will often be a live video at the top, followed by a brief summary of the event. Underneath that, you’ll see tweets broken out into one of a few categories. First (and perhaps most importantly) is “Recap,” which will get you caught up on what you might have missed and give you a kind of story arc for the event. Next is “Latest,” which will be a listing of more recent tweets. There may also be other tabs added on, including one called “Top Commentary.”
The idea, according to VP of product Keith Coleman, is to bring to the masses the thing that power users of Twitter already know how to do: find the best tweets through searching and following the right accounts. So during the NBA Finals, for example, you might not know which commentators to follow. But Twitter does, and it can show you their tweets.
If this sounds a little bit like Twitter Moments, that’s because the same team that creates and curates those on the Explore tab is working on this new news feature. And any time the words “news” and “social network” are within a thousand miles of each other, you have to wonder who is doing the work of curation and preventing fake news or abuse from appearing.
That job falls to Joanna Geary, the director of curation at Twitter. In a meeting in Twitter’s San Francisco offices with a small group of journalists, she said the new feature won’t be the same thing as hashtags on Twitter, though they may include relevant tweets if a hashtag is appropriate. The content of these new screens will come from tweets, chosen by a mix of computer algorithms and human curators. The decision about whether or not to send a push alert comes from that same mix.
Twitter Moments aren’t going away, but they’re going to be tucked into other corners of the app instead of being prominently featured on the Explore tab. These new news screens will be vertical scrolling lists of tweets rather than Moment’s story-like swiping tweets; Geary says that vertical scrolling lists feel more “native” to Twitter.
The new feature is coming just in time for the World Cup. In fact, there will be a specialized version of this feature just for sports, which will have video at the top and a live-updating score before you get to the tweets.
Coleman says that this new feature doesn’t represent a new direction for Twitter, but rather an evolution of a direction the company has been heading in for a long time. He says that “[CEO Jack Dorsey] says that ‘we want Twitter to be the bird on your shoulder that tells you what you need to know,’” and the purpose of this new feature is to make it easier to find that information in the firehose of tweets that tends to overwhelm any big event.
It’s “part of a much bigger strategy for us,” Coleman says. “This is going to be a much longer arc in the transformation of Twitter.”
Will that arc define Twitter as the place to talk about live events instead of the place to be insulted and outraged by whatever the president has recently said? That’s the goal, obviously, but in our discussion, I wondered if this is just one more experiment from Twitter, like Highlights or Moments, that was designed to help new users but would be rejected by power users. One more confusing Twitter feature instead of the bare, reverse-chronological timeline that so many of us say we want back. Is this new feature really going to answer that perennial question: what is Twitter for?
When one of the journalists in the room asked the obvious question: “What do you call this new thing?,” Geary and Coleman looked a little taken aback. They were surprised by the question. The new live events and news feature I just described to you apparently doesn’t even have a name. Here we go again, I thought. Twitter just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.
Then, Geary answered: “Twitter.” Maybe Twitter knows exactly what it wants to be. It just needs to do a better job of saying it.
Disclosure: my wife works for Oculus, a division of Facebook. My ethics statement is here.