Why Twitter is testing a real-time news service when it already is a real-time news service

With its IPO waiting in the wings, new features seem to be spilling out of Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco almost daily. Some are clearly designed to kiss up to the television industry — since that’s where the money seems to be — while others have a more subtle mission: namely, to convince people to use the service more. User growth and engagement is one of the metrics Twitter is probably most focused on as it prepares to go public.

To that end, we have seen the launch of two interesting Twitter accounts in the past week: one, called @MagicRecs, was an experiment in suggesting new users to follow, based on whether other people in your stream were also following an account. The second, called @EventParrot, looks an awful lot like a real-time news alert service that sends you direct messages — the same way that @MagicRecs did — when there is a news event that it thinks you might be interested in.

More notifications to keep you engaged

The @MagicRecs account was recently promoted to an official Twitter feature, which presumably means the experiment went well. And while Twitter hasn’t confirmed that @EventParrot is an official test account, the profile has very similar wording to the profile for @MagicRecs, and it seems like a fairly obvious move for the company to make as it continues to roll out new types of notifications. (Update: @EventParrot is verified now, which presumably means it’s official)

Event Parrot

My first reaction when I heard about @EventParrot was that I don’t need any more real-time news notifications (or any more notifications at all, for that matter — I am already drowning in notifications). Why create a real-time news alert service within Twitter when the entire network is a massive real-time alert service? Admittedly, it’s signal-to-noise ratio sometimes leaves a little to be desired, but it has already become something like a news-wire service for many users.

Are notifications going to help or hinder growth?

But Twitter isn’t concerned about me, or other media-industry types who are so-called “power users.” If they were, then they would make it a lot easier to create and manage lists, which is the primary way in which I and other smart Twitter users like Andy Carvin of NPR control the signal-to-noise problem. But they have repeatedly moved lists around so they are hard to find and use.

What Twitter is more concerned about isn’t just the hundreds of millions of people who don’t belong to the network yet — it’s the millions of users who have signed up for an account and never use it, or use it only once or twice a month. Those people need some reason to keep coming back, so that Twitter can count them as “active” and show them TV ads, and justify its $15-billion-plus market value. Maybe it’s notifications about new shows, maybe it’s news alerts.

The risk inherent in this approach, of course, is that all of the stuff Twitter is doing to boost its engagement and make itself a friend to TV networks — whether it’s notifications or auto-play video clips or pre-roll ads on the embedded video — just increases the noise level for many users. In some cases, it could even drive them away or cause them to use the service less. What will Twitter do then?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu