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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Twitter to introduce curated news feed option

Jay Rosen wrote a blogpost on LinkedIn yesterday east-coast-US time about the proposed curated feed feature Twitter currently has in the pipeline. This is in addition to other news today that Twitter will allow tweets longer than 140 characters. So a big day for Twitter news.

Rosen's blogpost contains a video where he is shown interviewing two Twitter employees - Adam Sharp, head of news, government and elections, and Niketa Patel, news partnerships manager - and it's when Patel starts talking closer to the end of the video that you start to get an idea about what kind of curation they plan to do. They want to aggregate the "best" tweets around a given topic, Patel said. And later in the blogpost Rosen himself hones in on this word.
[N]otice these terms: “the best of…” “the best tweets from that conversation.” We understand what he’s saying but there’s any number of ways to judge “best.” Which is yours, Twitter? “Pick the best” doesn’t say anything: on purpose. (A group of my graduate students were there and they all reacted harshly to this part.)
I think that it's useful to start with to say that curated tweets - if the topic is followed by the user - will be included in the user's regular news feed. So that's how the curation will occur. I also think it's quite interesting to notice that both Rosen and I focused on the same word used by Twitter to explain their philosophy in these early stages.

The first thing that I would say in regard to this curation idea is that curation already happens in Twitter and it's through the use by users of hashtags. You can set up in TweetDeck a column for a given hashtag with no trouble. What suggests itself for me when I think about these features - hashtags were a user-driven innovation, it should be kept in mind, where users just started using them autonomously with no input from the company itself - is that there's a possibility that curation of the news in Twitter will result in a sanitised news experience.

The thing about hashtags is that they contain everything - warts and all - just like Facebook's news feed used to (but does not now because the company some time ago started filtering individual feeds using algorithms). And I think that this filtering was something that users generally did not support. The danger with Twitter is that down the track they might get the same urge to meddle with the pure feed of tweets from people you follow, creating a hybrid that might suit the company's purposes but that might detract from the Twitter experience for the user.

Getting back to the editorial task Twitter is proposing to perform, you get the feeling that some of the mongrel will be taken out of the news with this new curation regime. Let's see. You have educated young Americans sitting in a room somewhere in Silicon Valley curating tweets produced halfway round the world by thousands of different people, with differing styles and differing educational levels. I suspect that the tweets that get selected will be the better-written and better constructed ones, leaving people who don't have such a good education to be excluded. This could create an artificial impression of the news event, and potentially exclude some important voices from the news feeds of other users. It is also kind of discriminatory.

The main thing then becomes the ability for the user to choose. As long as users can choose either the hashtag or the curated feed, then it will be ok. Experienced users who prefer an unfiltered news experience will simply ignore the curated feed option, and go for the hashtag instead.

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