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Keep real-time Twitter weird


Like the Internet, Twitter is great because of its depth—a sprawling mass of content and community so big, it has the potential to be all things to all people. Unfortunately, Twitter’s size is also what make it so difficult to make sense of, particularly during live events.

From the beginning, it was clear the platform had the potential to be a great companion to real-world events.

In 2006, I didn’t have anybody to watch with me as underdog George Mason played Florida in the Final Four. In time, the sports people would come. But first, there were earthquakes.

Even in the early days, when Twitter was a small community, it felt like an inevitability that the platform would become the place to watch events unfold in real time. The connection users felt to real events was something new and different.

Earthquakes led to other seminal Twitter events—Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s emergency landing in the Hudson River, the Arab Spring, sports—and in turn, fueled an explosion of content on the platform. Today, there is a seemingly endless stream of tweets that accompanies every conceivable type of event. But finding the most interesting content has always required maddening effort, and this hasn’t really changed.

Signals are not lacking. Tweets can be organized by location; time stamp; counts (followers, likes, retweets, impressions, plays, loops); the beloved #hashtag; content types (Vines, GIFs, videos, images, links), and more. Unfortunately, the organizing principle that Google Search was built on—“find the best answer”—doesn’t apply to real-time Twitter.

The best tweets at any one point in time are idiosyncratic and highly subjective. 

There is no best answer. The best tweets at any one point in time are idiosyncratic and highly subjective. Searching Twitter during a live event can be fun, but it’s mostly a frustrating exercise and nearly impossible for new users.

Twitter’s Moments product is a tacit acknowledgement that we need help from other humans to cull through the stuff. But the problem with centralized editorial efforts is that they tend towards the middle—they sanitize. Staffers working for a public company, supported by advertisers, will inevitably bypass what makes real-time Twitter great: A hearty dose of weirdness, that includes content that doesn’t fit neatly into known categories. The most witty, knowing commentary is frequently offbeat. Or crude. Video and photo ownership rights can be an issue.

A distributed approach

What if Twitter turned the curation of events (sports, news, festivals, memes..) over to the community? Each event could be open to curation by any user who wanted to perform that service. Tweets and retweets tied to an event, from the curators you follow specifically for that event, could show up in your timeline. The list of curators could be sorted by popularity, and other signals for personalization.

This could allow Twitter to largely remove itself from the editorial-voice game, and put the responsibility for perspective on real people. Vastly more events could be covered. Content available for each event could be as diverse as the community. Weirdness and diversity could enter back into the mix—something that could distinguish Twitter and fuel engagement.

Twitter always had a centralized product. But from the beginning, it was a priority to make its services available to the community, to reshape the product as they saw fit. Perhaps it’s time to revisit this thinking, and extend it to Twitter’s editorial efforts.

Adam Rugel was founder of Trazzler and co-founder of Checkmate, and he worked at ESPN and AOL. His Twitter handle @adam was one of the first dozen. He is based in San Francisco. 

A version of this story originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.

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