Twitter has announced it will no longer let people create Moments on mobile, admitting the feature "wasn't used as often" as it anticipated. But, the tool will remain at the heart of Twitter’s pivot from 'social network' to a news hub, with users still able to create stories on desktop, perhaps suggesting its future lies in publishers, brands and other commercial organisations adopting it. The Drum caught up with the platform’s head of curation to find out more.
Joanna Geary is Twitter’s director of curation. She joined in 2013 having been a social and community editor at The Guardian and, before that, a reporter at Trinity Mirror. The former journalist has been at the forefront of Twitter’s ‘newsroom’ experiments and today leads a team of 70 curators strengthening the platform’s pulse across multiple languages and markets.
Twitter's journey to become a destination for 'What's Happening?' started in 2016 when it moved from the ‘social networking’ section of the App Store to ‘news’. Re-inventing itself around the category that first gave it life, Twitter wanted to lean into the news and cultural phenomena breaking within its walls.
“We created Moments as a discovery mechanism,” recalls Geary. “We were getting feedback that some people found Twitter a confusing experience.”
Moments was developed to solve two issues: “How can I find out what's happening right now on Twitter?’ and ‘Where's the great content?”
It acts as a tailored digital magazine, with Twitter's crack squad of curators pulling together the most important events happening on the network in real time. They gather, arrange, contextualise and prioritise tweets to form a coherent narrative from a chaotic maelstrom of data.
The tabs host an odd mix of content. There are the Twitter staples; moments from The Great British Bake Off, stories about Chris Evans' Radio 2 departure and of course Donald Trump. Away from the front page, though, users can browse through ‘news’, ‘sports’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘fun’. Epitomising Twitter, each rabbit-hole can get weird and niche.
“We were contextualising a myriad of conversations that were gaining traction," Geary explains. "In doing that, we discovered that Moments was also a storytelling platform. We didn't know that at the time. It was not the intention.”
Two years after it embarked on its make-or-break newsroom journey, Twitter’s fortunes have turned. Its recent quarterly earnings call showed revenue was up 24% year-over-year to $711m; total ad engagements rose 81%; monthly active users jumped from up 326m to 335m and average daily active users increased 11% - a malady to its growth plateau.
“Who would have thought it? A pyramid-style narrative is a very easy way for people to consume information like news," muses Geary.
It was, in fact, the basic tenets of journalism that inspired the evolution that brought Moments, and Twitter itself, to where it is today.
The launch of Moments was a natural step for Twitter. Tweets were already being embedded into news stories by third-party publishers and tweets sent by politicians or celebrities were shaping the news agenda.
By creating a platform to tell stories, Twitter has also inadvertently increased the accessibility of the app. “It was a pivot – we learned discovery and storytelling were linked. How you discover depends on the story," says Geary.
Her team of curators are not journalists in any traditional sense. The culture pulls the best bits from tech companies and traditional newsrooms.
“I didn't want to go back into newsroom culture, but I liked the pace of them - just being part of what's happening,” she says. “We employ some people with journalistic experience but the work that they do is different. It is different, and every single day seems to get more different as the job evolves.”
There is an argument to be made that this style of journalism is coming closer to the curation team. Publishers often use Twitter trends to inform their editorial decisions and Twitter-driven page views and engagement will be studied in understanding the performance of content.
But there are inherent challenges. On the surface, Moments skews towards entertainment and sport but there is a responsibility to highlight political issues and events too, like the Tory Party Conference this week. There is a need to balance voices and opinions across the political spectrum, sometimes painstakingly.
Twitter can’t be seen to be making political statements, especially on the editorial front. Dorsey's politics or apolitical chief exec tenure are often a point of contention. Political bias, an inability to effectively scrub out toxic elements or diminish hate speech or fake news, often crop up in criticism too.
He told US Congress in September: "The purpose of Twitter is to serve the public conversation, and we do not make value judgments on personal beliefs." From a business perspective, there is an attempt not to alienate audiences. There is also a commitment to being the platform where the public engages in "healthy" debate. Work is being done to aid this.
Twitter is often likened to the modern public square; a place of conversation and debate. The same media companies complaining about Twitter's role as a debate platform are very likely to have deleted their own online comments sections in the last few years, skewering a vital channel to the public.
Amid this diminished responsibility, Twitter filled the void and is only beginning to understand its impact on the wider world.
“Over the last year we've realised how important it is for us to take responsibility for the whole public conversation and to be a place where that can happen,” Geary says. “It will massively change how we think about the product and how we measure success on our team.”
The challenge going forward is “informing people in a way that actually generates healthy public conversation”.
She points to the history books: “We've had these very interesting challenges whatever the platform has been. It has been an ongoing historical challenge.”
“We are ten-minutes-old into this era, we're all trying to solve difficult issues and challenges that a new era of opportunity brought upon us. I would rather be part of solving the next ten minutes than I would be 'saying the next hour is complicated, I will just give up'.”
In its essence, the app and the Moments product remains a work in progress and a big part of testing and learning in the coming years will be around algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
She says: “There is a lot of thought going into how humans, and their 'colleagues' algorithms can work together... we are thinking about where automation and human efforts intersect. Where they do today… and tomorrow.”
With Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and even Google championing a ‘Stories’ format – Twitter Moments inadvertently became its ‘Story’ feature itself. An important development upon the news newsfeeds are proving less effective than they once did on many social networks.
For Geary, the future of Twitter and its nervous system is simple: “deliver the right information to the right people in the right format at the right time.”