Twitter is moving more aggressively into the world of journalism, building a new alert system for breaking news and hiring someone to build new partnerships with the media industry. Together, the moves point to a service that is as much a broadcaster as it is a social network, owning live events with a core product that predicts its users’ interests without having to ask for them. Whether it realizes that vision remains anyone’s guess — but if its latest experiment proves successful, Twitter will have gotten a lot closer to it.
Latest project in Twitter’s flock of experiments started to chirp. Event Parrot, an account devoted to bringing you news of the world via push notifications, went public. It follows in the footsteps of Magic Recs, a similarly experimental account that was launched in March. Magic Recs focuses on people and popular tweets: it notifies you when a group of people you follow all follow the same person, or favorite or re-tweet the same tweet. Event Parrot monitors breaking news accounts on Twitter, including CNN’s and the BBC’s, and sends alerts about major stories.
The company declined to comment about Event Parrot, saying only that it is always experimenting with ways to improve the service yet it has attracted around 215 million active users, Twitter’s central challenge remains attracting the late-adopting mainstream users that have so far avoided it. Inside the company, the product teams have focused on making it easier for a new user of Twitter to find it as valuable as the early adopters did. Twitter’s core users were happy to go out in search of interesting accounts to follow, shaping and re-shaping their feeds as the service evolved. To win the next 200 million users, Twitter is betting that it can shape people’s experience for them, pushing information out to them instead of trusting they’ll go find it on their own.
After only six months, Magic Recs was absorbed into Twitter’s core product, with its recommendations now pushed to users’ mobile devices through the company’s apps for iOS and Android. If Event Parrot succeeds, it is likely to follow. For now, the account links only to global news. In time, though, it’s easy to imagine Twitter delivering more localized tweets. The company could personalize them based on what it knows about your interests and the people you follow. And what’s to stop Twitter at news? There are plenty of other events that Event Parrot could send your way: concerts, festivals, sporting events.
Event Parrot differs sharply from its predecessor in one key respect. Magic Recs says, “Follow me and I’ll tell you who’s worth following.” Event Parrot says, “Follow me, and you’ll know the news no matter whom you follow.” Before now, Twitter has largely left to users the question of which news sources to follow. With Event Parrot, the company is positioning itself as a kind of gatekeeper.
At the same time, Twitter’s recommendations all generally lead to individual news sources. That means more traffic, and influence, for the sources that Twitter selects. At around 32,000 followers today, a link from Event Parrot won’t exactly melt the servers at CNN. But if its recommendations do migrate into the core product, Twitter could become an increasingly influential arbiter of traffic in the online news game.
That’s one reason that the company is investing heavily in its relationships with news organizations of all sizes. Twitter is finalizing a deal to bring on NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller as its new head of news, according to All Things D. Schiller, who previously ran NPR and also held positions at CNN, Discovery, and The New York Times, would oversee the company’s relationships with news organizations and work to develop new partnerships.
Few would deny that Twitter has succeeded at becoming an important platform for news. And yet at barely one-fifth the size of Facebook, it isn’t yet the colossus it dreams of someday becoming. Launching Event Parrot and hiring a head of news won’t by themselves bring Twitter to a billion users. But if the product team can make it feel more like a broadcast service, it could give the service much more mainstream appeal. Why turn on CNN or the BBC, you might ask, when you can just wait for Twitter to tell you when something deserves your attention?
The writer of this article is Casey Newton