Mike Isaac

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Twitter Testing New Local Discovery Features — And It’s About Time

Twitter may be the best way to figure out what’s happening around the world right now. But it sure ain’t great at telling me what’s going on in my world — that is, what’s happening down the block from me.

That may change. According to multiple sources, Twitter is in the process of testing a new feature that lets you discover tweets from people within a certain distance of your location. The idea is to surface relevant activity based on where you are in the world, serving up tweets from others around you — whether you follow them or not.

The feature, as I understand it, came out of the company’s recent hack week at the beginning of this month, where a few engineers worked on projects related to local discovery. A number of employees have been testing the feature in the Twitter app ever since.

The type of tweets you’d see, ideally, are the most relevant ones nearby, especially when they follow a trend or a flurry of closely connected activity. So a football game or a concert, for instance, may be a great use case here.

Or perhaps even more importantly, it could be used in completely unplanned, spontaneous instances.

Here’s an example, and a real kicker: I’ve been told that a few employees were testing the new feature in Boston last week, around the time that the brothers Tsarnaev allegedly carried out a series of horrific bombings during the city’s annual marathon.

When reached for comment, Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner said the company had nothing to share on the matter.

It’s fascinating to me that Twitter is toeing the waters of discovery through a local lens more explicitly than ever before. Currently and historically, the company already factors in location when suggesting content inside the Discover tab and also when serving you ads. It also goes without saying that to try this stuff out during the recent Boston tragedy — which was arguably watched by much of the world through Twitter just as intensely as it was over broadcast networks — is incredibly interesting, if only to imagine what possibilities it could hold for other mass events in the future.

The big question for me: Twitter, what took you so freaking long?

For a company that prides itself on its interest graph — the pulse of what everyone in the world is talking and thinking about — something like a localized version of discovery seems like a natural extension of what it means to use Twitter in a meaningful way.

Yes, Twitter makes much of the foo foo special moments its users have when connecting with people on the other side of the planet (or in some cases, connecting to others off our planet entirely). I won’t begrudge them that; it is pretty fantastic.

I’d argue, however, that Twitter could be infinitely more useful to me were I to open up the app and see something happening down the block: A yard sale, a car accident, half-off a tasty fried chicken sandwich. That’s Foursquare’s entire value proposition with its newly revamped, search-focused app. If done right, Twitter could potentially be even more powerful in this respect, feeding off the hundreds of millions of potential intent signals flowing through its pipes on a daily basis.

So this may have come out of a recent hack week project, but ideas like this have been in the works for a long time. People I’ve spoken to said that for years Twitter has kicked around just exactly what discovery is supposed to mean for the company. Does Twitter relegate it to the Discover Tab alone and “experiment” with how people use it, as product VP Michael Sippey said at our D: Dive into Mobile conference recently?

Or perhaps an even bigger coup: Does Twitter insert these local tweet suggestions into your main Twitter timeline directly? I hear Twitter has considered both options — again, for years people inside the company have agonized about the right way to handle this — but there’s no decision quite yet.

To insert suggested location-based tweets into your main timeline, however, is a really big deal for Twitter. Touching the holy grail that is the timeline — the list of people that users have selected to follow — isn’t something the company takes lightly. For one, it could tick off Twitter’s early user base, or alienate all the folks who have carefully curated their follow lists over time.

But here’s something to think about: Right now, Twitter isn’t worried about the longtime, early user base. The company is launching products on “Good Morning America.” It’s cooperating with the Grammys and the Oscars. It’s pushing products like Vine at Cannes. It’s making the head of comms into a consumer marketing director as well.

The service’s 200 million active users pales in comparison to Facebook’s billion. Twitter needs to go truly mainstream.

Ultimately, if that means changing some of the core elements of the product and peeving the hardcore Twitter users, I’d guess Twitter may soon be approaching the point that it is willing to make that choice. It has already chopped off the legs of its client developer base and shifted everyone’s attention to the official Twitter apps.

My impression here, though, is that even Twitter isn’t sure yet what it wants to do. It could again test how this feature works within the Discover tab and maybe move it into the timeline later. Or perhaps just keep it inside Discover. Or, in all possibility, scrap the feature as it stands entirely and try it a different way. Twitter doesn’t move that fast on major changes like these.

I will say, however, that I’m glad to see the company is at least looking at tweaking its formula, even if there’s potential to upset part of the user base.

Frankly, it’s about time.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work