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A Momentary Lapse of Reason

8 Oct, 2015

There has been an enormous amount of discussion about Twitter’s new Moments feature. Moments, previously known as Project Lightning, is Twitter’s attempt to curate tweets. As usual it has been met with gushing praise by the press. In the real world I suspect it is getting a much poorer reception, and I think it is doomed to fail. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments…

1. Twitter’s audience is interested in real-time posts, not the past

Twitter is a real-time platform that condenses news facts, or links to news stories, into 140 characters. Twitter users use the service to find real-time news. I know that I now start my day by looking at Twitter, rather than say, Drudge Report. Rather than static content, I see what people are talking about over multiple topics that suit my interest, and can go directly the linked sites from their recommendations. The posts are written specifically to showcase realtime information. It’s like going into a room of learned acquaintances, who are saying “Hey, have you seen this thing that you’re interested in?”

2. Is Twitter a news organization?

Jay Rosen, NYU professor, says that Twitter is a becoming “an editorial company, a maker of news products,” but I seldom see any original reporting on the site, and almost all of the posts are links to commentaries. That may be different from other users’ experience. I don’t see Twitter as a news site at all, but as a social news promotion site. This is an important distinction, because the curation of Twitter posts is not curation of news, but the curating of the promotion of news.

3. Conflict of interest

A news organization has to be free to report as freely as it can. But what happens when newsworthy Tweets are deleted by politicians and celebrities? How can Twitter curate these posts against its users’ wishes?

4. 140 characters is not enough for past events

The intent of Twitter posts is not to say here is something to be preserved, but here is right now. Curation implies after-the-fact compilation of news events and giving them context.

Rosen also says the initiative will succeed because Twitter, the business, “loves news” — doesn’t every news organizations love news? But each news organization works within a particular format restriction that works for its content. The medium defines the message. TV reports are different from print reports.

When companies step outside of their format, bad things usually happen. This is also a concern for the removal of the 140 character limit — when the medium changes, will the message still be the same? I think it won’t. These kind of core changes have the ability to destroy the site, which is then easily replaced by a newcomer who understands the format better.

5. Curation should tell a story

This last point is often forgotten in curation, where it is often deemed good enough to collect some stories or facts as-is, add a title and claim that it is curated content. Take these Moments examples: Hillary’s Trust Problem For a start the headline is biased, and the content is barely readable. Or FIFA suspends Sepp Blatter. Who wants to read a bunch of semi-random old tweets? There’s no context. There’s repetition. There’s bias. There’s no extra meaning. It’s a disaster.

I believe that the original story itself has to be crafted to fit the curation. This is again a result of the medium matching the message. The message is curation. The question is “how do we curate news?” not “how do we curate the marketing of news?”. These are two entirely different things. You simply cannot curate Tweets on their own without context and expect it to be interesting to readers. The original tweets were written to promote news, not to be curated.

By contrast…

At Newslines we set out to curate news from the get go. We don’t need to square a circle. Our contributors curate news events by sourcing the original reports and writing original summaries of the events. The objective is that the curated posts make sense as part of a timeline. We would never just add a tweet on its own. Each news event, whether it is from a newspaper, a YouTube report, a Twitter or Facebook posting needs context, which we add with a short summary and meta data, such as links to other people involved in the event, or classification of the event type.

Check Donald Trump to see some examples of posts with tweets amongst other curated news. Or Troy Carter, where our contributors scoured the web to find this information. We could have created a list of links to each news article, as some algorithmic services try to do. That might be easy for the producer, but it’s very bad for the reader. Readers need just the right amount of context so that they can understand the news without having to go elsewhere.

Super investor Chris Sacca says I have a conflict of interest in saying Moments is rubbish. First of all, I’m glad he thinks that Newslines can compete with Twitter — that’s quite an endorsement. But conflict or not, Moments misjudges its audience, and tries to squish its format into something unsuitable. It’s the ugly sister trying on the wrong shoe. The result, unsurprisingly, is weakly-formed content that’s simply boring.

As a major Twitter investor, Sacca should be concerned not with this messenger, but that Moments shows that Twitter’s management don’t understand their own site. If this is the best Jack Dorsey can do, then Twitter itself is headed for failure.