TECH | Twitter is redesigning its app to put breaking news first

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Twitter, more than any other social media company, faces a unique challenge even after more than a decade of existence: It still doesn’t know how to explain what it is to new users. That’s partly because of marketing missteps and partly because the best way to figure out Twitter has always been to just use it.

But 12 years since launching, the company is finally hitting its stride. It recently shifted its marketing strategy, and user growth is on the rise once again. Oh yeah, it’s also profitable for the first time ever.

But now that the company has refocused its marketing around breaking news and events, it also needs to refocus elements of the actual app and service. Which is why, today, the company unveiled a series of changes meant to make it easier to follow breaking news and other events that unfold over Twitter.

What Twitter is changing

The updates are happening in a lot of different places in the Twitter app. In your main timeline, you might see a new “happening now” module that puts breaking news stories at the top of your timeline. The company’s actually experimented with this before, but it was only for sports.

Now, though, you’ll see “happening now” for other types of breaking news as well as “personalized news” based on your interests (or Twitter’s idea of your interests). Tapping into one of the events will bring up a separate timeline dedicated to that particular event, with relevant tweets, photos, and videos highlighted.

In cases when Twitter thinks you might be really interested in a piece of news, you could get a push notification that would direct you into the same kind of “happening now” experience. The company isn’t saying how often it expects people to get these notifications, but it’s also meant to be personalized to your interests,

Elsewhere in the app, the Explore tab will also be getting a makeover that organizes content by topic, rather than format. Search features will still work the same way, but the tab itself will instead highlight news events and other conversations happening on Twitter in a way that’s, yes, personalized to your interests.

All these changes, by the way, are going to be rolling out gradually in the coming weeks and months, and some are more experimental than others. But what they all have in common is that they’re supposed to not just make Twitter easier to navigate, but help casual users get the same value as power users.

“This change is basically designed to make it as easy to follow an event as it is to follow a person on the service today,” says Twitter’s VP of product Keith Coleman. “It makes the magic of Twitter much more accessible.”

If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s nearly the exact same premise as Moments, the feature Twitter launched with great fanfare in 2015 that was also supposed to help people figure out how to use the service. But Moments has had mixed success. Though the feature’s expanded and Twitter’s curation team has grown over the years, it’s hardly the flagship, can’t-live-without feature it was once billed as.

Over the years, the company’s gradually made Moments less prominent within Twitter’s app. And some of Twitter’s most memorable Moments haven’t been about breaking news events, but goofy viral moments.

With these latest changes, Moments isn’t going away entirely, but the feature will be even less prominent as a standalone experience as Twitter makes way for more breaking news and personalized content. (The company’s internal curation team will also be working on recaps and other features tied to the new experiences.)

“I would think about this as the evolution of Moments,” says Coleman.

Will it work?

These changes won’t be without controversy, though. New features that are meant to make Twitter more approachable for the masses, like algorithmically-sorted timelines and changing stars to hearts, tend to be met with skepticism and even derision from longtime users who still love to obsess over how their timelines looked 10 years ago.

For them, features like breaking news notifications and curated feeds will likely seem like an overreach (Coleman says it will let users opt out of the notifications). There’s also the fact that news is an increasingly fraught area to be in for tech companies.

Facebook, which will never admit that it’s a media company, has backed away from curating breaking news after its own editorial decisions got the company into hot water. But Twitter, which CEO Jack Dorsey has described as the “people’s news network” hasn’t gotten the same heat, even though it regularly makes its own editorial decisions.

That could change once it pushes harder into news and the commentary around it. While sports is a relatively safe category to navigate, politics and other parts of the daily news cycle are much more thorny. Making things more complicated is that all these features will be powered by a “blend” of human curators and algorithms, which are not always as adept at identifying the bets sources of news.

So it seems almost inevitable that at some point Twitter will inadvertently elevate a conspiracy theory or a bot or some other piece of commentary some segment of Twitter’s users find objectionable.

But if Twitter’s worried about these challenges, it’s not saying so now. Coleman noted that Dorsey’s commitment to measuring “conversational health” is “our number one initiative right now,” but that the goal of the changes goes beyond any one conversation or event.

“This is one moment in time in a much longer journey in the transformation of Twitter,” he said.

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