This was the year social networks turned into news organizations

Social networks are the overworked writer’s best friend. It’s easy to observe the latest outrage on Twitter, grab a few good jokes from Reddit, or screen cap the ridiculous things people write on Facebook and turn them into blog posts. Writers used to have to find stories to chase — now they just have to be willing to sift through gargantuan masses of shit to find a few nuggets of social media gold.
There are a few problems with this: the people whose content has been lifted don’t always like someone else taking credit for their words, photos, or videos; relying on outside platforms can lead to the meat of a publisher’s blog posts falling right out of their sandwich of context and witticism; and social networks don’t need writers to surface their best content. They can collect it themselves.
That’s what many decided to do this year. Reddit created a publication called Upvoted to highlight the stories that propagate on its service. Twitter introduced Moments to aggregate tweets about breaking news and entertainment alike. Snapchat got into the news business during the San Bernardino shooting. This was the year social networks tried to establish some control over social media.
The reasoning behind this shift, as well as each company’s approach to it, has varied. Upvoted resembles a traditional publication that just happens to pull its stories from the Reddit platform. It’s designed at least partly to redirect some of the traffic that would’ve otherwise gone to other sites back to Reddit itself. But, as Gigaom’s Tom Cheredar wrote, it’s also meant to humanize the community:

Right now, Reddit is viewed by advertisers with caution. The reasons for this are well-documented. But there’s no denying that Reddit is popular enough that you’d be crazy not to try and get in front of its audience. The problem is that it’s often hard to predict how the discussion will form on Reddit by its community, and that’s a risk many advertisers aren’t willing to justify should things go sour — deserved or not.

Upvoted can soften those fears by enhancing the top submitted content on Reddit proper (as explained above). On other news sites that may credit a Reddit user for submitting a piece of content that gets written up in an article, usually there’s no desire to go beyond the user name. But doing so could help humanize the submitters, which might help advertisers overcome some of the negative characterizations of the overall Reddit community.

Twitter’s Moments feature (not to be confused with the Facebook photo app of the same name) has a different motivation. It’s supposed to find the best tweets so people never have to wonder why they should visit Twitter. It’s also supposed to make it easier for new users to understand what Twitter is about — a way to distill the chaos into a manageable form so normal people can interact with it.

But the implementation is very different from Upvoted. Moments doesn’t look anything like a traditional publication. Instead it looks like just another feature on Twitter’s navigation bar, making it harder to tell that serious editorial talent, like New York Times editor at large Marcus Mabry, are in charge of its content. Its team is a dedicated newsroom masquerading as part of the Twitter machine.

Snapchat’s foray into breaking news took yet a different form. Its staffers gathered content shared to public “Stories” and made them available to anyone near the area affected by the San Bernardino mass shooting of December 2. Small updates about the investigation were written by these same staffers, but for the most part, the company simply shared what its users were experiencing.

I argued that this approach, combined with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s service, is a refreshing departure from the majority of breaking news reporting:

It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.

Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)

These are three very different approaches, but the underlying goal is the same: Gathering user-generated content before writers aggregate it themselves. So I’m left to wonder when other social companies will get around to creating their own publications instead of waiting for writers to swoop in, gather all the free content lying around, and turn it into something that could lead to millions of pageviews.

There are some obvious contenders. Vine’s users already provide a glimpse into what’s happening during important events, so it would be trivial for the service to collect the best coverage and make it available to users. The same could be said of Periscope — instead of showing things in six-second loops, it offers live-streamed video. Twitter could editorialize both services without much effort.

Another less obvious one might be Product Hunt. That site is like a gift from the tech journalist’s gods. (That is assuming tech journalists have gods willing to serve their — sorry, our — wretched souls.) Need to find something cool to write about? Go to Product Hunt! It’s got everything from software to podcasts, and many founders use the platform to answer questions about their products.

Talk about manna from tech journo heaven. New products? Public statements? Links to the app store, animated GIFs, and ready-to-use images? Product Hunt is one dedicated “news” section away from putting a good number of tech writers out of their jobs. Let’s all take a moment to thank chief executive Ryan Hoover for sparing us from such a grisly end to our careers — at least for the moment.

Aggregating content from social networks has created a weird loop that takes something from those networks, puts it on another website, and then inevitably shares it to the same networks and other platforms. (I, and probably many other Redditors, encounter many links to BuzzFeed stories containing jokes I read a week ago.) These efforts are merely the result of social networks closing the loop.

How Twitter’s new ‘Moments’ feature is ‘Trending’ done right

Twitter has made its first significant product update since Jack Dorsey returned to the helm on Monday: A feature called “Moments” that collects tweets, photos, and videos related to a single topic, such as rising floods in South Carolina.  The world’s most gnomic social network is getting into the aggregation business.
Well, it’s expanding that aggregation business, at least. The company previously experimented with a similar feature that collected important tweets for Android smartphone owners. Now this distillation of the mind-boggling amount of stuff posted to the service every day is being made a core part of its website and apps.

Keeping people better informed

Several of the Moments highlighted by Twitter are devoted to the news. There’s one devoted to the United States bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, one to the refugees fleeing the Middle East’s conflict zones, and one to the South Carolina floods mentioned earlier. In addition to highlighting content related to those topics, Twitter also offers a brief summary of the news  on top of each Moment.
This doesn’t come as a surprise. Twitter is great for breaking news: journalists often use it to share information that hasn’t been published in official reports, or to highlight aspects of their reporting that might have otherwise been missed. Combine that with the amount of news shared by ordinary citizens and you have a social network that is most useful whenever important news starts to break.
Moments solves a problem with that paradigm: Never knowing who to follow. A Twitter feed filled with nothing but journalists is its own special kind of hell, one where the jokes are overblown and the knee-jerk criticism is far too prevalent. But if you don’t follow these overgrown children who by some miracle have access to the publishing systems behind the world’s premier news organizations, it can be hard to get up-to-the-minute updates from Twitter’s main timeline.
This new feature changes that. Now anyone can view tweets about the news, and while there isn’t too much in each Moment yet, I suspect we’ll see them expand in the future. Twitter is a social network and a news service; Moments separates the two so people don’t have to surrender their timeline to remain informed. A feed for people you follow, another for things you might want to know. Great.

Screenshots of Twitter's new "Moments" feature in action on Mobile.

Screenshots of Twitter’s new “Moments” feature in action on Mobile.

Also? Keeping folks entertained…

That isn’t to say that every Moment is devoted to the news. That would quickly make for a depressing section of Twitter’s website that only a few people might visit with any regularity. (Many of those people probably follow a lot of journos anyway, so the first benefit of this new feature wouldn’t help them very much.) So the company mixed a few parts news and a few parts entertainment to bake a new feature with enough sugar to taste good and enough protein to be healthy.
This model is familiar. Just look at BuzzFeed, which combines feel-good lists with hard-hitting news. Or at the New York Times, which covers stories from around the world but also trolls anyone who reads its oft-mocked Style section. Twitter understands that being strictly devoted to news, or to entertainment, isn’t the best way to reach as many people as it can. It has to do everything.
Combining these two categories is likely a gambit to keep people coming back for more. Twitter famously struggles with users trying its service for a while before abandoning it — Moments provides quick, informative-yet-entertaining snippets that people might check when they have a spare moment. At the very least it’s more interesting (and in-users’-faces) than Facebook’s trending stories.

…while expanding revenue opportunities

There’s very little chance that Twitter won’t allow companies to sponsor Moments. It’s inevitable, like the sun eventually collapsing on itself. Social networks ask companies to promote messages on their services; large stars eventually die, and will take nearby planets with them. It’s the way of things.
But I suspect, unlike the sun’s last cosmic kiss to the planet Earth, we’ll be around to see Twitter introduce sponsorships to Moments. The feature kinda makes Twitter a media company, and many of those companies have to rely on “native advertisements” to survive in a world where ad revenues keep falling. Besides, they already pay to sponsor tweets, and what are Moments but a bunch of tweets gathered into one easy-to-find section?
What I’m saying is that it won’t be long before “Tom Hanks finds student ID” and “Faces of the refugee/migrant crisis” are buttressed by “Subway’s great!” and “Volkswagen really cares about the environment.” These sponsored Moments probably won’t be that interesting (most native advertising isn’t) but it could help Twitter continue to grow its revenues.

Showing that Twitter can still innovate

Twitter’s changed a lot of things lately. It has removed the 140-character restriction from direct messages, making it easier for people to have private conversations. It’s redesigned its profiles. It’s expanded its focus on photos, reportedly considered ways to work around its restrictive character limit, and made it easier to follow conversations, among other additions to its service.
All of these changes make Twitter easier to use for most people. The service has gone from being a frenetic hangout for media-addicted tech writers trying to show the world how funny they are to being a slightly-easier-to-follow service where non-journalists discuss everything from breaking news to their lives. But until the company keeps that latter group coming back for more and gets more users, commentators won’t stop criticizing it for being outside the mainstream.
Continuing to release new features like this shows that Twitter can make the moves necessary to appeal to a mainstream audience. It almost doesn’t matter if it works — as long as it seems like it’s working, or like Twitter’s working to achieve that goal, it should be given a little slack. Not a lot — everyone loves a good “Twitter is doomed!” story — but perhaps enough to quiet things a little.