Twitter made its long-awaited move into the news business this week with the launch of Twitter Moments, a new tab in Twitter’s mobile apps that let you see semi-curated summaries of the biggest news stories, as represented by things people are tweeting.
It makes sense, given that Twitter contains — among the 500 million things people tweet every day — an enormous amount of “news,” however you define that. But finding the news you’re interested in has historically been very difficult. You need to spend a lot of time creating lists or following people who actually have newsworthy things to say, and even then, their smartest tweets are often mixed up with a whole lot of stuff that may be interesting, and even funny, but which hardly qualifies as useful information.
Twitter, however, is a latecomer to the social news curation game. Lots of people have attempted to extract useful signals about the news from the huge mess of social data, with varying results. Let’s put Twitter Moments in context:
Techmeme: One of the earliest attempts to bring order to the news, Techmeme focuses on tech news. Tech journalists have a love-hate relationship with it, and can become obsessed with “getting on Techmeme” to the detriment of actually producing useful, well-written news. But by aggregating stories from a variety of sources and giving prominent links to the most useful and/or most-referenced stories, Techmeme actually is a handy way to scan the day’s top tech news.
Google News: Less focused on social signals than textual ones, Google News uses its analytic tools to group together related stories and highlight the biggest ones. Unlike Techmeme, it’s entirely driven by algorithms, and that means it often makes weird choices. I’ve heard that Google uses social sharing signals from Google+ to help determine which stories appear on Google News, but have never heard definitive confirmation of that — and now that Google+ is all but dead, it’s mostly moot. I find Google News an unsatisfying home page, but it is a good place to search for news once you’ve found it.
Flipboard: The closest thing to a magazine experience on mobile, Flipboard arguably presents the most readable, news-centric view of your social stream by letting you view stories that people in your Twitter or Facebook networks have shared. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a lot of filtering or weighting of those stories (to make the most-shared ones more prominent, for instance).
Pulse: LinkedIn has been putting a lot of effort into curating news, and Pulse shows some of the fruits of that effort. Its most useful feature is the ability to notify you whenever one of your LinkedIn contacts is mentioned in the news. It also presents a list of stories based on what people in your network are sharing, which can be handy — but that feed is often dominated by the kind of self-promotional stuff that many people on LinkedIn can’t stop posting. More relevant are the daily news roundups from LinkedIn’s editors.
Nuzzel: This app has been getting a lot of press lately, first because Twitter investor Chris Sacca suggested that Twitter ought to buy it. It’s not a bad idea: Nuzzel actually makes Twitter useful for news by looking at the URLs that the people you follow are tweeting. If enough of them tweet the same URL, it puts that story in your news feed on Nuzzel; if even more people tweet it, Nuzzel will send a notification to your device. That’s handy if you have interesting people in your Twitter feed who tweet about news you’re interested in, but Nuzzel also offers some curated lists that can augment that, and may be expanding its curated feeds soon. I like the Nuzzel experience a lot, even if its algorithm is relatively basic — showing that you don’t necessarily need high-order artificial intelligence to extract the news from Twitter.
Twitter Moments: If you want a TV-like experience showing you some cool pictures and videos from the top news, sports, and entertainment topics, this is the place to go. I’ve been using it for less than a day, since it was first released, but my initial impression is that this is a good way for Twitter to highlight interesting things without asking me to do a lot of work to find those things. The big drawback is that it’s entirely self-contained: None of the tweets link out to stories on the Web, so if I want to see more than just headlines and pictures, I have to go somewhere else.
Upvoted: One more site worth mentioning just launched: Upvoted, a homepage that Reddit has put together out of the stories posted on that social network. One key feature of Upvoted: It’s just the stories, no comments or votes allowed. In other words, if you love Reddit’s obsession with nerd culture, kitten GIFs, space exploration, and geek love stories, but you hate its toxic mix of racism, sexism, and juvenile stupidity, Upvoted is the place for you.
What conclusions can you draw from this admittedly biased and ad-hoc survey of the landscape? First of all, Twitter Moments is way behind the rest of the pack in terms of social curation capabilities. It is hardly the “bold change” Twitter execs want you to believe it is: It’s kinda neat, but ultimately underwhelming.
Second, nobody is really using algorithms of any sophistication, with the possible exception of Google News: All of these sites and apps rely on the most basic stats, such as how many times a URL is shared, and most of them — including Twitter — add a significant layer of human curation. You’d think it would be pretty easy for Twitter — or someone else — to come up with a more effective solution than that.
Third, news consumers still have to put a fair amount of work in before they can get the news they want, consistently and readably. There is still a big opportunity for a company that can figure out how to curate a set of news, tailored to each reader’s interest, with speed and reliability.
Whether there’s a business model in doing that remains to be seen, however: The news has not exactly been a good place to find high rates of return on investment in the past few decades, and it’s getting even worse as online advertising approaches the end of the line. But that’s a topic for another day.