Twitter is finally launching something that its users might actually want

June 18, 2015, 9:45 PM UTC
Twitter Goes Public On The New York Stock Exchange
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There’s been a lot of gloom and doom around Twitter recently, what with CEO Dick Costolo stepping down, amid criticism that he was ineffective in improving the company’s fortunes, and being replaced as interim CEO by co-founder Jack Dorsey. And when it comes to new products, it often seems as though they are designed primarily to please advertisers (i.e. auto-play videos) rather than to enhance the user experience.

So in that respect, it’s kind of a refreshing change of pace to see that the company is working on something that looks as though it might actually be useful, possibly even enjoyable—and could fill one of the holes that many say exist in the service.

The company recently gave BuzzFeed a look at a new offering currently known as Project Lightning. From the description, it sounds very much like what Twitter has been trying to do for some time—including through its Discover tab, which no longer exists—which is to provide a better way of curating and aggregating tweets and content for users in one place, so that they can follow live events.

This is one of the things that prominent Twitter backer Chris Sacca outlined in a blog post just before Costolo’s departure, in which the venture investor talked about what the company does well and what it doesn’t do well.

One of the things Twitter is best at, Sacca pointed out, is live events—whether the event is a basketball game, an election, an awards show or an earthquake half a world away. But the service doesn’t do a good job of making it easy for users, and especially new users, to figure out that something is happening and then figure out how to follow the right accounts or find the best information.

“We may not know they are happening at all [or] we may know they are happening but don’t follow the right accounts to get the most immersive coverage,” Sacca said. As a solution, he proposed building a separate tab that would curate the best accounts to follow during an event and pull out the best information, using human editors, and then would promote that to new users and existing users through the app.

In effect, this seems to be what Twitter has built with Project Lightning, according to BuzzFeed’s description, which came from product head Kevin Weil:

“On Twitter’s mobile app, there will be a new button in the center of the home row. Press it and you’ll be taken to a screen that will show various events taking place that people are tweeting about. These could be based on pre-scheduled events like Coachella, the Grammys, or the NBA Finals. But they might also focus on breaking news and ongoing events, like the Nepalese earthquake or Ferguson, Missouri.”

If you click through to one of these live events, you will apparently get a curated collection of tweets, including many with images and video. And those will be pulled together by a team of editors working under global media head Katie Jacobs Stanton. Images and videos—including clips from Vine and Periscope, both owned by Twitter—will appear full-screen and then users can swipe through them.

According to BuzzFeed, you could also opt to follow the collection and have tweets from the event blended into your existing timeline, even if you don’t follow any of the accounts who are included in the curated feed. In a sense, it’s a way to follow an event without having to follow all of the individual accounts involved.

Twitter has been trying for some time now to figure out a way to capture some of the intensity that occurs within the network when a real-time event occurs, whether it’s a shooting or a celebrity wedding. It’s first crack at doing so was Trending Topics, and then that gave birth to the Discover tab, which tried to use algorithms and hashtags to select things a user might be interested in, but was widely viewed as a disaster and eventually euthanized.

Now, Twitter is taking much the same approach that Facebook has taken with its FB Newswire (which is run by Storyful), and Apple is taking with its upcoming News app: Namely, it is hiring actual human beings to edit and curate the tweets and content into something that other human beings might be interested in. And it won’t affect the timeline for hard-core users, who have resisted such ideas in the past.

As Alex Howard of The Huffington Post has pointed out, this makes Twitter into much more of a media entity than it has been in the past. And it is a potential threat to existing media outlets, many of whom simply curate tweets about breaking news events as a way to generate traffic. If Twitter does a good enough job of this itself, it could turn out to be a strong competitor (Snapchat Stories are also pretty clearly a competitor as well).

As with any media entity, the choices that the company makes will also be important ones: What happens when there’s a shooting like the one in South Carolina, in which a white man opened fire in a church and killed nine black members of the congregation? Or when there’s an attack by Israel on the Gaza Strip? Such events are likely to be hugely controversial, and the selection of which accounts or tweets to include and which to exclude is going to be examined under a microscope.

Will the new feature help Twitter improve its user numbers and engagement metrics, which is what Wall Street investors really want to see? That’s difficult to say, since it doesn’t even officially exist yet. But amid the false starts, bad ideas and general chaos that have made up Twitter’s product strategy for the past couple of years, it is a beacon of hope for users, and that can’t be bad.

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