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Twitter to predict what you want to see, when it happens

Jun 14 2018 06:30
Selina Wang, Bloomberg

Twitter will personalise news for users and send them notifications of events, trying to attract a bigger, broader audience with one of its most comprehensive product updates in years.

The changes follow several iterations to make the social-media platform less cumbersome for new users, who may find it hard to decide whose opinions to follow and how to engage in conversations. Now, Twitter will predict relevant topics and send breaking-news notifications based on a person’s interests. It’s overhauling the explore section of the mobile app to show curated content for major events and stories that are organised by topics like news, entertainment and sports.

CEO Jack Dorsey “often says we want Twitter to be the little bird on your shoulder that tells you what you need to know, when you need to know it,” said Keith Coleman, the San Francisco-based company’s vice president of product. “When something important happens on Twitter, we want Twitter to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘hey, this is going on and we want you to check it out.’”

For example, with the volcanic eruption in Hawaii, Twitter could alert people with a notification that would take them to the most relevant tweets, photos, and live videos of the news. Currently, to get the most in-depth experience, a user would have had to search for a specific hashtag that identifies the event, follow the tweets of Hawaiian government officials, or search for other accounts. Twitter wants to make it as easy for someone to stay connected to an event as it is to follow an individual person, Coleman said.

Dorsey, in a tweet, said the effort “really gets closer to what Twitter wants to be.” Sriram Krishnan, the company’s senior director of product, said the changes will be rolling out to users beginning Wednesday and in the coming weeks. “We will be learning and iterating based on feedback,” Krishnan tweeted.

Turnaround 

Twitter shares have rallied more than 80% this year, as investors grow confident in the company’s turnaround strategy and pace of product innovations. Dorsey has focused on using artificial intelligence to personalise content for people and improve the algorithms to filter out spam and automated accounts called bots.

Yet while the changes have encouraged existing users to spend more time on the platform originally known for its 140-character posts, monthly active users gained 2.8% to 336 million in the first quarter compared to a year earlier - the slowest pace of growth in two years.

The company is betting that this major makeover will draw in a more general audience, outside of its power base of journalists, politicians and entertainers. As part of the effort, Twitter will roll out a World Cup experience with individual pages for each game that will keep track of the score and commentary. The global soccer tournament begins Thursday in Russia. Executives believe these kind of curated experiences around big events will entice new users to download the app.

Dorsey also embraces Twitter’s role as a curator of news and a place to discover “what’s happening now” at a time when social-media companies have come under fire for fake news and harassment. Facebook recently adjusted its News Feed algorithm to prioritise posts from friends and family, and it scrapped the trending news feature that was criticised for anti-conservative bias.

Technology companies have tried to position themselves as platforms, rather than media publishers that are arbiters of truth.

Bloomberg LP produces TicToc, a global breaking news network for the Twitter service.

Joanna Geary, Twitter’s director of curation and former journalist at The Guardian, said the company isn’t a newsroom defining the biggest news of the day for its audience.

“We’re there to reflect the conversations that are already happening on the platform,” she said. The curation is done by a blend of humans and machines.

The product changes could aid Dorsey’s goal to rid the platform of rancorous and toxic conversation. Earlier this year, the company started accepting proposals from the public for how to make Twitter a more civil place. By increasingly curating and personalising the content that users see, the company may have more power over the way information is spread across the platform.

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