Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

The Future of Twitter Events Is Here

Twitter’s biggest draw to date has been the power of the event.

From Hurricane Sandy to the Academy Awards, “events” are those moments of large-scale, even worldwide interest, ripe with the potential to show Twitter newcomers just how valuable and interesting the service can be.

But Twitter hasn’t made the most of these opportunities. Filtering events through hashtags has been a mishmash of tweets — some highly engaging, most far less so. In effect, Twitter’s most powerful attraction has been completely lost on untold numbers of potential new users.

That may soon change. On Tuesday, Twitter announced a new “Custom Timelines” product for developers and third-party sites, effectively giving organizations the power to curate their own Twitter streams to surface the best material related to an event.

The possibilities here are huge: Event staff at the Grammy Awards can sift through tweets — either by hand, or, perhaps more importantly, programmatically through Twitter’s new API — showing off big moments that may have blown up to some groups on Twitter, but haven’t been visible to the masses. Or journalism outlets like London’s Guardian can curate a Q&A session on Twitter, embedding the entire conversation on its website.

The notable win for Twitter: This is scalable. For many big events in Twitter’s past, the company has had to hand-hold some organizations — like, say, the Oscars — coaching them how to curate and showcase relevant tweets properly. Now, organizations large and small can do it on their own.

Frankly, this has been a long time coming. For quite a while, Twitter has known how powerful events are for the service. But, for many reasons — organizational and leadership problems, disagreements on implementation, not to mention the massive technology problem it was to sift and sort through the deluge of garbage tweets to surface the most-relevant content — Twitter hasn’t made it happen until now.

The effort languished in the days when Evan Williams was CEO, and came in fits and starts under current CEO Dick Costolo.

It’s not for lack of trying. Last summer, Twitter attempted to make events work in a big way in a pilot partnership with Nascar, offering a landing page centered around the #Nascar hashtag, complete with algorithmically curated and human-curated tweets. It was a major push that came straight from the top, with CEO Costolo intensely focused on the effort’s outcome.

But the effort was a complete flop, according to insiders. The Nascar push resulted in relatively few new user signups, which was pretty much the entire point of it. Most visitors came, saw the tweets and bounced, without ever actually signing in to the service. It also required lots of work from Twitter staff — again, not a scalable long-term solution.

I imagine that the new curated timelines will initially gain traction from journalistic outlets surfacing tweets by hand, and will likely be a payoff for those aiming to cover live, breaking news as it happens.

But the big story here is the “beta” API. Right now, only a few select partners are allowed to use it, but I’d guess that as Twitter improves search, relevance and discovery over time, this will open up to more groups, again delivering a scalable solution to organizations of any size all over the world.

I’m also curious as to what companies like Mass Relevance and Livefyre (which acquired Twitter-based startup Storify) think about this announcement, as it basically steps on those companies’ toes. Neither have immediately responded to a request for comment.

Update 1:50 p.m. PT: Storify co-founder and VP of editorial at Livefyre Burt Herman pinged me later with a comment: “Storify has a strong relationship with Twitter and their new Custom Timelines will make it easier for our users to find the best tweets to add to their stories. We are exploring how we can incorporate the Custom Timelines into Storify, which lets you collect media from all social networks and anywhere online, along with adding your own text to provide context for stories,” he said.

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