How Twitter’s new ‘Moments’ feature is ‘Trending’ done right

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Twitter has made its first significant product update since Jack Dorsey returned to the helm on Monday: A feature called “Moments” that collects tweets, photos, and videos related to a single topic, such as rising floods in South Carolina.  The world’s most gnomic social network is getting into the aggregation business.

Well, it’s expanding that aggregation business, at least. The company previously experimented with a similar feature that collected important tweets for Android smartphone owners. Now this distillation of the mind-boggling amount of stuff posted to the service every day is being made a core part of its website and apps.

Keeping people better informed

Several of the Moments highlighted by Twitter are devoted to the news. There’s one devoted to the United States bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, one to the refugees fleeing the Middle East’s conflict zones, and one to the South Carolina floods mentioned earlier. In addition to highlighting content related to those topics, Twitter also offers a brief summary of the news  on top of each Moment.

This doesn’t come as a surprise. Twitter is great for breaking news: journalists often use it to share information that hasn’t been published in official reports, or to highlight aspects of their reporting that might have otherwise been missed. Combine that with the amount of news shared by ordinary citizens and you have a social network that is most useful whenever important news starts to break.

Moments solves a problem with that paradigm: Never knowing who to follow. A Twitter feed filled with nothing but journalists is its own special kind of hell, one where the jokes are overblown and the knee-jerk criticism is far too prevalent. But if you don’t follow these overgrown children who by some miracle have access to the publishing systems behind the world’s premier news organizations, it can be hard to get up-to-the-minute updates from Twitter’s main timeline.

This new feature changes that. Now anyone can view tweets about the news, and while there isn’t too much in each Moment yet, I suspect we’ll see them expand in the future. Twitter is a social network and a news service; Moments separates the two so people don’t have to surrender their timeline to remain informed. A feed for people you follow, another for things you might want to know. Great.

Screenshots of Twitter's new "Moments" feature in action on Mobile.

Screenshots of Twitter’s new “Moments” feature in action on Mobile.

Also? Keeping folks entertained…

That isn’t to say that every Moment is devoted to the news. That would quickly make for a depressing section of Twitter’s website that only a few people might visit with any regularity. (Many of those people probably follow a lot of journos anyway, so the first benefit of this new feature wouldn’t help them very much.) So the company mixed a few parts news and a few parts entertainment to bake a new feature with enough sugar to taste good and enough protein to be healthy.

This model is familiar. Just look at BuzzFeed, which combines feel-good lists with hard-hitting news. Or at the New York Times, which covers stories from around the world but also trolls anyone who reads its oft-mocked Style section. Twitter understands that being strictly devoted to news, or to entertainment, isn’t the best way to reach as many people as it can. It has to do everything.

Combining these two categories is likely a gambit to keep people coming back for more. Twitter famously struggles with users trying its service for a while before abandoning it — Moments provides quick, informative-yet-entertaining snippets that people might check when they have a spare moment. At the very least it’s more interesting (and in-users’-faces) than Facebook’s trending stories.

…while expanding revenue opportunities

There’s very little chance that Twitter won’t allow companies to sponsor Moments. It’s inevitable, like the sun eventually collapsing on itself. Social networks ask companies to promote messages on their services; large stars eventually die, and will take nearby planets with them. It’s the way of things.

But I suspect, unlike the sun’s last cosmic kiss to the planet Earth, we’ll be around to see Twitter introduce sponsorships to Moments. The feature kinda makes Twitter a media company, and many of those companies have to rely on “native advertisements” to survive in a world where ad revenues keep falling. Besides, they already pay to sponsor tweets, and what are Moments but a bunch of tweets gathered into one easy-to-find section?

What I’m saying is that it won’t be long before “Tom Hanks finds student ID” and “Faces of the refugee/migrant crisis” are buttressed by “Subway’s great!” and “Volkswagen really cares about the environment.” These sponsored Moments probably won’t be that interesting (most native advertising isn’t) but it could help Twitter continue to grow its revenues.

Showing that Twitter can still innovate

Twitter’s changed a lot of things lately. It has removed the 140-character restriction from direct messages, making it easier for people to have private conversations. It’s redesigned its profiles. It’s expanded its focus on photos, reportedly considered ways to work around its restrictive character limit, and made it easier to follow conversations, among other additions to its service.

All of these changes make Twitter easier to use for most people. The service has gone from being a frenetic hangout for media-addicted tech writers trying to show the world how funny they are to being a slightly-easier-to-follow service where non-journalists discuss everything from breaking news to their lives. But until the company keeps that latter group coming back for more and gets more users, commentators won’t stop criticizing it for being outside the mainstream.

Continuing to release new features like this shows that Twitter can make the moves necessary to appeal to a mainstream audience. It almost doesn’t matter if it works — as long as it seems like it’s working, or like Twitter’s working to achieve that goal, it should be given a little slack. Not a lot — everyone loves a good “Twitter is doomed!” story — but perhaps enough to quiet things a little.

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