How big is Twitter Moments?

Moments likely has >92M monthly uniques — more than CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

Twitter Moments is a bit of a paradox. It’s Twitter’s in-house news service, and because of recent feature changes, it’s become one of the most visited news outlets in the world. Specifically, mobile Twitter users in many countries now see Moments every time they go to search. Given conservative estimates of monthly uniques that we detail below, this means Twitter Moments probably has a captive audience that’s larger than CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

Yet surprisingly few people know it by name. And if they have heard of it they often deride it without thinking through the numbers.

That’s really interesting. Whenever we see a technology with empirical traction whose importance is neglected or even derided, it’s a useful signal of an investment or entrepreneurship opportunity. Good examples that I’ve been personally involved with include Soylent and Bitcoin, where skepticism, mockery, and outright hostility was eventually followed by huge returns for those who bet against the crowd.

To be clear, Moments alone likely won’t produce those kinds of outsize financial returns for Twitter. The company has too many other issues that are driving users away, from online mobs to seemingly random moderation policies. Blockchain-based competitors are on the horizon, and Moments is no deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, the new Moments may be the single most interesting thing Twitter is doing, and holds many interesting lessons for other products. Because it’s arguably the first vertically integrated combination of a social network with an international news outlet.

But before diving into that, let’s give a little background.

What is Twitter Moments?

The Moments feature was launched in 2015, and it’s had a bit of a confusing history. It used to be siloed into a separate tab on mobile, it is still a separate lightning bolt tab on desktop, and it has a semi-hidden feature that allows users to create their own moments.

Ignore all that for now. The big new thing that happened this year is that Twitter moved Moments into their so-called “Explore” tab, which the average user would recognize as the search tab with the magnifying glass icon. Here’s a few screens of how that looks in the Twitter iOS app:

See that big photo with the headline in the upper left corner? That’s the top Moment, with the headline and photo written and selected by Twitter. This is not simply showing the most popular hashtag on Twitter; it involves explicit and acknowledged editorial judgment.

If you click that headline within the app, you get a series of screens to swipe through, starting with an intro (again written by Twitter) and followed by Twitter-curated tweets. Try here or here on mobile to see an example. If you instead scroll down, you’ll see other sections of the Explore tab, with other top headlines (“Today’s Moments”), and then individual verticals (like “Tech News”).

If you scroll even further, you see personalized recommendations (“Trends for you” and “Popular articles”), and then finally individual verticals to browse further.

Twitter Moments likely has 92–139M monthly uniques

So that’s what the new Explore feature looks like. Moments are at the top and seen by a large number of global Twitter mobile users on iOS and Android every time they go to search. But just how large is that number?

  • As of Q2 2017, Twitter has 328 million monthly active users (MAUs) and an estimated 157 million daily active users (DAUs)
  • Assume that 33–50% of these are active in the countries where Moments is live
  • Assume further that 85% of Twitter monthly actives use the mobile app
  • And assume finally that Twitter mobile app users, like Google users, tend to search on average once per user per day. So each Twitter MAU likely does a search (thus clicking on the Explore tab to view Moments) at least once per month.

Put those together, and you get (328M)(0.85)(0.33–0.5)(1.0), which yields a conservative estimate of 92–139.4M monthly mobile unique views of Moments headlines worldwide, entirely due to users clicking on the Explore tab.

To put this in context, Moments is likely already one of the biggest news outlets in the world by sheer viewership, as we can see by comparing Moments to recent stats from CNN on other organizations:

Twitter Moments has a huge captive audience. Every time a user goes to search in the Twitter mobile app across 10+ countries, they will see headlines from Moments.

Twitter Moments is a vertically integrated news outlet + social network

OK, so we’ve established that Twitter Moments has massive international reach, likely more than CNN or the New York Times in terms of sheer monthly mobile uniques. But so does Twitter itself, and Facebook, and all the other big social networks. What’s new here?

The big new point is that Moments are mostly written and curated by Twitter itself and pushed via the Explore tab to 92M+ unique people per month. To my knowledge, that is very different from the behavior of any major social network or search engine to date. Facebook quietly had human editors for a while behind the trending hashtags, but then fired them in search of a more neutral algorithm. And Google doesn’t put much in the way of its corporate opinion on current events in the search box, other than on rare occasions like SOPA. So Twitter Moments is fairly unique with respect to most other social networks in terms of exercising explicit editorial judgment.

Moments is also unique with respect to the other news outlets at comparable scale (CNN, Fox, NYT, etc), because none of those sites are built on a full-blown native social network like Twitter. Among other things, deep integration with the native Twitter social network allows the Moments team to track the progress of each story in minute detail, to personalize the news for each user, to do A/B tests of headlines, and to essentially close the loop with their readers in a way no news outlet has ever been able to do before.

And of course, going in the other direction, the Twitter social network can build features to encourage and prioritize greater engagement with the Twitter Moments news feed (such as putting it in the Explore tab to be seen on every search.)

While the social network piece is probably the hardest to build and most defensible due to network effects, it’s easy to miss the amount of labor that goes into the news side of this equation, because (a) Moments often report on very generic/mainstream content, and (b) Moments are typically very bare-bones — usually a headline, a headline image, an introductory paragraph for context, and then a curated list of tweets.

Nevertheless, they are being created constantly and in realtime. Apparently >27,000 Moments have been written to date, which is about 37 moments written every day since the October 2015 launch of the feature. Again, Moments is a surprisingly large news outlet from a sheer quantity perspective.

But Twitter Moments sucks!

There are tons of common criticisms of Moments. I agree with many of them. Let’s go through a few.

  • No one reads Moments! As noted above, we can estimate Moments to have ~92–139M mobile monthly uniques, more than CNN, NYT, or WaPo. The audience might well be a captive audience, but it’s one of the largest news audiences in the world.
  • OK, but no one important reads Moments! Assuming most journalists are mobile Twitter users with ~1 search per day, the top Moments headline is likely viewed by a huge number of journalists globally every day. By contrast, it is unlikely that as large a percentage of journalists from organization X refresh (say) the pages of organization Y on a daily basis. So Moments may also be the most widely read news outlet among journalists in the countries where it operates.
  • Ok, but no one users ever create Moments! Agreed. Only Twitter-generated moments are high quality as of today. The user interface for user-generated moments is hidden and clunky, and needs integration into the standard tweet compose flow.
  • OK, others may use it, but I never click Moments. Maybe so, but people also say they “never click FB/Google ads” — but then many do. Some people also might not know that the headlines under the search tab are “Moments”, or might only use the Twitter desktop app where they are less visible. But it would be surprising if 92–139M monthly uniques viewing a headline wasn’t producing engagement. Only Twitter has the metrics to show this for sure.
  • OK, but Moments on desktop sucks. No argument there. It’s far better on mobile, where it’s integrated with search.
  • But Moments content is very boring/generic/mainstream! Yes, it is, though (a) it’s not that dissimilar from what you see on CNN or Fox, let alone HuffPo or Buzzfeed and (b) they’ve started to add much more personalization recently.
  • Moments is just packaging, it’s not generating any new content/scoops. Yes, the innovation here is on distribution: by putting it on the search tab, Twitter Moments gains a massive captive audience. But the Moments team does write headlines + intro paragraphs + organize Twitter quotes. Millions of people then read these headlines when going to search. Moments doesn’t do original reporting, but they do shape the narrative.
  • Moments can’t compare to a real news article! There is of course plenty of tremendous original journalism out there. However, many mainstream articles today are summaries of the Reuters/AP feeds, reprises of someone else’s original reporting, or frankly just long-form Twitter Moments in that they are color commentary on a series of tweets. Axios also has a similar model in some ways to Moments. While Axios spends a lot more energy on high quality reporting, and has many excellent journalists, it also uses an intentionally telegraphic format with a headline, some context, and a few short bullets or quotes.
  • Facebook has way more users! Yes, but all Facebook users aren’t seeing the same headline pushed to them, while every Twitter user who does a mobile search in a given time & place sees the same Twitter-created Moments headlines. Facebook did curate hashtags at one point, but doesn’t generate realtime first party content like Moments.
  • What about Google News? Google News does do organization and prioritization, but doesn’t do explicit first party editorial. Their algorithms determine what story is “A-1 above the fold”; they don’t manually write headlines or intros.

Conclusion

Frankly, I’m not even a huge advocate for the Moments feature per se, any more than I’m a heavy user of Facebook. I just think it’s got a numerical heft to it that should be more widely appreciated.

Put another way, even if you didn’t use Facebook or care for it, you have to respect the impact of two billion users. In the same way, even if you don’t use Moments or much care for its editorialization or mainstream-ish content, the fact that it likely has more mobile monthly uniques than CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post is something to reckon with. Quantity has a quality all its own.