Tweet, O Muse
Twitter Moments could save the company — if it’s done right. Here’s how.
Disclosure & etc: Earlier this year I spoke with some very nice people at Twitter about joining their Twitter Moments project. While it ultimately didn’t work out, I wish them and the project the best — I know Marcus Mabry some, and he’s an excellent choice to lead this.
Moments is still far from what it will ultimately become. What follows are my thoughts on how the product can revolutionize the Twitter experience. My day job is working with tech and media companies on projects like this (ping me if you’re doing something interesting!), and since Twitter is especially dear to my heart I wanted to share it here:
Twitter wants to be a media company. This is good; it’s a recognition of what it already is, and what it needs to be if it’s going to grow.
The thing is, if you’re going to be a media company, you need to be a media company. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and to date the only tech company to have even partially managed to pull it off is YouTube. Twitter is in this place right now. Pinterest may be in this place some day. Snapchat knows this is coming and is trying to prepare, with some false starts along the way. It’s a place Tumblr was in as well, and Tumblr decided to be a place for brands instead of a place for editorial.
Twitter needs to understand what it is to grow beyond being a platform into being a storyteller. And being a storyteller on the Internet means:
*You have a point of view.
*You have a point.
*You are responsive to your audience.
Having a Point of View
Imagine if your first experience of the New York Times was just a suggested list of people, or a stream of headlines from a particular writer. How long would you stay around to figure it out? What real editorial platforms offer is more than simple tools or even curation. They give you structure. They give you context. They don’t just hand you a bunch of levers and say “you figure it out.”
They tell you a story.
Outside of their investor pitch decks, tech companies are terrible at this. They obsess over scale, but think very little about narrative. Twitter needs to reverse this.
Let’s start with MTV.
What if in its early days MTV refused to do anything except run music videos 24/7? No VJs, no promo bumps, no shows. Just video, video, ad, video, video, video. What if the execs there said “We are a content delivery platform. Other people give us our content (music videos) for free. Why would we want to spend anything on original material? Our job is to take these free videos, make it available to as many people as possible, and let the subscription and ad dollars roll in.”
Twitter Moments today is like MTV without the VJs
What MTV did instead was to give narrative to randomness. They worried less about scale and more about context. The content wasn’t just the videos; it was the promos that people watched as much as the videos. It was the context and connection provided by the VJS. They created a communal narration in a way that no collection can, and they created a community.
They had a point of view. You turned on MTV because you wanted to know what was cool, so you could be cool too. You turn on Fox News because it confirms your worldview. You turned on ESPN in the early days because it made sports fun, and you turn it on now because there’s nothing else.
Twitter Moments today is like MTV without the VJs. It’s a collection of media objects, with little to tie them together except for the fact that someone put them in a particular order.
Moments needs a voice. Remember that the best Twitter accounts aren’t feeds. The best Twitter accounts don’t ignore users. The best Twitter accounts give you a view into a personality and a mind you could never see in any other way.
<A Short Diversion About Algorithms>Algorithms are still human curation — it’s just that the curation is done through a set of instructions to a computer before the fact, instead of someone making real-time choices about what to do. Still, the end result is ultimately the product of the same thing — Humans making choices about what should be considered relevant.
But neither algorithmic nor hand curation is all that compelling. It’s a utility, rather than an inspiration. Or, to put it another way, if what people really want is just a really fast, tailored-to-them listing of relevant headlines, Google News would be the biggest thing on the Internet.
If Moments is ultimately just a simple replication Google News, it will be a failure. That is, if someone looking at the Moments product can’t tell if what she’s seeing is the result of an algorithm or a human plucking a tweet out of a stream, the response will mostly be ‘Meh.”</A Short Diversion About Algorithms>
Having a Point
In online storytelling, there are only two options: You can be First, or you can be Unique. Moments needs to own one of these two points, or it will fail.
With that in mind, here’s the Moments page right as I write this, Oct. 21, around 1PM ET:
It’s 45 minutes since Joe Biden announced he wasn’t running for president. It’s the top trending item on Twitter right now….and it’s nowhere to be found on Moments. Twitter’s own Trends function is a better venue for “First” than Moments.
So Moments can’t really be First. It’s not a breaking news platform. Its staff of human editors are already experiencing something familiar to all newsrooms since Twitter became a mass platform — no human editor can assemble an editorial experience faster than Twitter’s algorithm can.
This means Moments has to be Unique. It has to tell you a coherent story, and that story has to be a narrative, not just a collection of Tweets. Right now, the capability to do this does not exist: Twitter editors can write a short description telling you what’s in the Moment, and…um…they can put a bunch of Tweets in a certain order.
An individual Tweet absent content is underwhelming. Twitter understands this already; it’s no accident that the majority of Tweets in moments involve some form of video.
But even a collection of short videos doesn’t really provide much in the way of establishing a narrative thread. And Moments aren’t even designed to support a nonlinear experience — you click through each moment in the way the editor assembles them,
Then there’s the PR problem.
The way Moments is currently constructed, Twitter editors can only “pick.” They can’t add context, clarify, amplify, etc. This leaves Moments supremely vulnerable to “he said, she said” journalism. That is, because you can only in effect quote people, you can’t do anything except fall back on “this person said this, and this person said that, and you the reader are supposed to figure out who’s right.” That a lot of news organizations hide behind this approach in the name of objectivity doesn’t make it any less awful, or any less an abdication of editorial responsibility.
Imagine if all the New York Times did their news stories this way: All stories would be collections of official statements and man-on-the-street quotes. Not only that, none of the statements/quotes would be the results of questions a Times reporter posed.
To use an old reporter’s insult, this isn’t really journalism so much as it’s stenography — Twitter editors collect a bunch of bits of information, order them, and put them out there without any opportunity for context, clarification
But there are ways to add context to a story, and the easiest by far is to allow Moments editors the ability to insert editorial context into the mix. For instance: This is a good collection of Tweets that add up to a story: Teju Cole’s Seven Short Stories About Drones. It has a narrative; it has coherence. Twitter’s own guidelines says it won’t republish things like this from users in Moments, but what Moments editors should be doing is creating things like this within Moments.
Being Responsive to Your Audience
This is the big one. It’s the one Twitter most needs to get right, because it’s the one that’s closest to Twitter’s core, and it’s the one that Twitter is most likely to flub.
In digital media, you have almost always failed if your product is essentially one-way. That is, if what you’re creating is designed just to be consumed, you haven’t done enough.
Right now Moments is entirely a consumption experience. It’s worse than Trending or Lists, because unlike those, if you want to if you want to follow a link to source material from Moments, it’s three clicks away. Moments was clearly designed to keep people in the Moments environment, and that’s mistake number one.
There’s one thing that Moments can do to counter this: Give editors the ability to respond to the Moments audience. Let Moments hosts AMAs using Twitter. Let Marcus Mabry answer Tweeted questions about coverage. Let the account engage with readers, rather than simply placing information in front of them.
What Moments Should Be
Everyone in tech builds their live products around the best-case scenario. I’ve heard three different pitches for live mobile news products in the past year, and the all start the same way: “So Ferguson happens, and everyone is there in the crowd with their smartphone, and they all have the app, and BAM!” And that’s true, and great.
Moments should be programmed. It needs to be telling you a great story at all times.
But things like Ferguson rarely happen. The definition of news is out of the ordinary. This use case is great like 10 times a year. But far more often, there’s not a lot happening on the average Tuesday afternoon. This is why cable TV can often be stupid — they’ve set the bar with the exception that something big is happening all the time, and it’s just not.
So what should Moments be instead?
Moments should be programed. The core value of Moments should be that whenever someone hits that “Moments” button in the Twitter app, that person should be informed and delighted by a unique, human experience and interaction.
Reality doesn’t just happen. Real reality is boring much of the time. It needs an editor. What Twitter needs to be doing is telling you a story at all times. Some of those times that story can come from things emerging on the network. But some of those times that story should be something that has been planned and created by the Twitter Moments team.
What Moments needs is a programming grid, just like TV. At some points that grid will be overridden by live events, for sure, but if there’s nothing going on, there should still be something going on. And people need to know that, and plan for it: You want to know that every Tuesday at 9 PM will be “Tweetstorm! by Marc Andreessen.” Or a newsmaker AMA, hosted by a smart interviewer (the Moments version of The Daily Show). Or Twitter Memes explained. Or any one of a hundred different programming ideas that are better than this.
It also gives Twitter a great DVR-like product: Say Moments does a 15-minute news package twice a day — read/watch the whole thing and you’re completely caught up. That’s something you can subscribe to — and catch after the fact, so that if you miss the 9 AM show Twitter will park it in a nice package in an email to you. Or save to Pocket. Or store in a new folder in the Twitter ap.
It’s the same with any of the shows — “live” is super powerful, but time-shifting is even more so. Give people the chance to essentially DVR Twitter.
The Soul of Twitter and the Twitter Voice
The big concern from journalists, not surprisingly, is what kind of editorial product Twitter will produce — as Jay Rosen asks, “does Twitter editorial have a soul?”
I can’t speak to what Twitter editorial will eventually be, though in my experience the team there working on this is absolutely committed to doing meaningful, real journalism with a heart and, yes, a soul.
As for voice, well, that Twitter voice isn’t hard. I faced a similar challenge at Newsweek, when I created the Newsweek Tumblr as a way for a print magazine to talk with, not at, its community of users.
This is a good Twitter voice: Knowledgable, but not a know-it-all. Compassionate, not snarky. Responsive and honest, most of all about itself. If Twitter Moments makes an editorial decision, Moments will be able to clearly articulate and defend that decision, in real time, before millions of users.
The Twitter voice is responsive. It fundamentally regards Moments as a conversational opportunity, not simply a broadcast platform. Twitter readers should be participants, and be given the courtesy of a response where possible and appropriate.
The Twitter voice believes in rationality. Facts are the building blocks of its endeavor, and they are to be held sacred. If Twitter does AMA-type things, it must do what every great interviewer does (and this is all too rare in all of journalism): push back on assertions, correct, to the extent possible, and not allow outrageous bullshit answers to go unchallenged.
The Twitter editorial vision has room for a definition of news that goes well beyond simply an accounting of the doings of the powerful and famous. Twitter is home to a vibrant culture and communities all its own, and Twitter editorial should reflect and chronicle the works of those communities as much as it reports on politicians or business leaders.
The history of tech companies trying to do media is a horror show — see, for instance, Facebook stories, Snapchat Channel, Tumblr’s Storyboard project to name just a few. It’s hard, and expensive, and most places don’t get it right.
But the payoff is real, and for Twitter, essential. Twitter right now is an excellent platform for power users. It’s a great place for content creators — Tweeting is simple, there are powerful tools to help you discover other content, some nice analytics and multimedia features, etc. And it’s a great place for someone like me, who isn’t much of a creator on Twitter, but who is an obsessive user of the platform.
The problem for Twitter is that there’s a far bigger universe of people out there who want to know what’s going on in the world, but want the experience to be as simple as turning on your TV. Right now Twitter requires you to too much work to find out what is interesting on the platform. To grow, the company needs to behave more like an editorial entity, instead of a platform that will show you all sorts of things if you will only do the work to figure out how to find you want to see. Moments has the potential to do that, to fundamentally remake Twitter as the essential mass communication platform of the 21st Century.
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