The Future of Twitter is Collections

Friday, January 02, 2015 – 2309 views

— by jazzychad

Disclaimer: I worked at Twitter from March 2013 - May 2014. I have been an ex-employee for seven months and have no current knowledge of Twitter's product roadmap.

The Problem with Twitter

I love Twitter. It has affected my life and the way I see the world more than any other online product or service. But, it's not perfect.

When I talk to my friends and family, their unanimous complaint about Twitter is, "I follow too many people. My timeline is just too noisy." - which leads to using Twitter less and less.

The problem is Twitter is supposed to be an interest graph, but really it is just a people graph because you can't follow interests on Twitter, you follow people. And, by nature, people will tweet about their many and varied interests, which is a great and wonderful thing... however, this leads to a home timeline that is muddled with lots of tweets you don't care about with a few interesting ones mixed in.

The Signal to Noise ratio quickly gets very low as you follow more people. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Twitter uses a lot of visual space on the website and in their apps dedicated to suggesting other people to follow. I guess the thought is, "the more people you follow, the better your timeline will be," but I don't believe this, and anecdotally neither do a lot of people.

The Algorithmic Timeline

A lot of fuss has been made recently over rumors of Twitter moving toward a more algorithmically curated home timeline, a la Facebook. Many people have expressed a negative opinion of this idea, and rightly so. First, one of Twitter's great strengths is the unfiltered, real-time firehose of information from people that you have decided to follow. Destroying that essentially destroys the point of Twitter. Second, getting an algorithm that will achieve the "perfectly personalized timeline" for hundreds of millions of users is extremely difficult. It would take years and years to get this right. While it would be an amazing technical achievement, I don't think users or investors have the patience for it.

Twitter has already experimented with "favorite injection" by displaying tweets favorited by other users in the home timeline, and it seems universally reviled by everyone who has seen it. The favorites that have been injected into my own timeline have never seemed relevant, and it feels like some interloper has appeared in my timeline against my will.

A Better Way

So, both Twitter and users want a better, higher quality home timeline, but the user-follow-model is too noisy and the algorithmic timeline is too cold and ineffective. What's the answer? Human-powered curation.

Humans are still way better than computers at many things: object recognition, OCR, sentiment analysis, categorization, etc...

The ability for humans to categorize things and the innate desire to collect things is a very powerful combination. It manifests itself in many different forms, mainly in art galleries and museums. A small number of people curate the objects in these collections, and millions of people get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

This happens online, too, and it's called Pinterest.

On Pinterest you can follow users if you want, but you can also follow individual "boards" (their collections). This means you can see only the pins that interest you meanwhile ignoring all the other collections that user is creating. This truly is an interest graph (and why advertising on Pinterest can be precisely targeted).

Pinterest for Twitter

In November 2013, Twitter quietly announced a feature for TweetDeck called Custom Timelines. Later, as it was being developed, Twitter smartly renamed the feature Collections.

As you might expect, Collections allow you to manually create a collection of tweets. Each collection has a name and a description and is naturally centered around a specific topic, theme, event, or interest.

As a Twitter employee, I had early access to some Twitter web features and was able to create many collections. I became obsessed with them. It seems obvious that this feature is the future of Twitter. Let users follow collections of tweets, et voilĂ , you solve the interest-graph problem and the timeline quality problem in one shot.

Collection Use-Cases

How can collections be used? Let me count the ways...

The Killer Feature

All of those use-cases are great, but to me the killer feature of collections and being able to follow them is real-time reporting of current events from around the world.

Twitter is the place for instantaneous information about what's happening in the world. But, when a big event happens Twitter becomes a high-velocity stream of confusion where it is hard to parse out the good nuggets of information. Trying to find the right people to follow in the moment is hard, the retweets come fast and furious, and sifting through Twitter search results becomes nearly impossible.

Imagine a world where journalists and reporters could piece together a coherent narrative flow of information for people to follow over time as events unfold? I know in my gut that they would love to be able to do this using the power of Collections and the ability for users to follow them. Making Collections a first-class feature in Twitter's mobile apps would be a huge boon for reporters in the field and citizen journalism.

Collections are the Future

It's clear to me that Collections are the next big feature for Twitter. Not everyone will create collections, and that's ok. Many millions more people will benefit from the efforts of the few.

I don't know what happened to Collections after I stopped working at Twitter. From the outside it seems like the product has been shelved and left in a half-baked, half-released state. I'm sad because I really believe in this concept, and I haven't been this excited about a Twitter feature since the original concept of Twitter itself. Maybe this post will inspire someone on the inside to pick up the ball and run with it.