Monday, August 31st, 2015 | 8 min read
Kevin Weil, Twitter’s Head of Product, has a bold vision for the future of the microblogging platform. And bold is probably good; after all, he’s tasked with improving Twitter’s core product for its 300+ million users, recruiting new users, and keeping advertisers happy – all at the same time.
Since taking over product in October of 2014, Weil has overseen several updates that focus on improving user experience, including changes in how conversations are displayed on individual Tweet pages and improvements to Twitter’s homepage.
But his most highly anticipated update hasn’t even happened yet. The marketing and tech worlds are buzzing about Project Lightning, which is Twitter’s codename for a new feature that will deliver a collection of the best Tweets around important events happening across the globe in a format that is entirely new to Twitter.
Katie Jacobs Stanton, Twitter’s VP of Global Media, told Buzzfeed:
“The challenge we’ve had over the years is, although we have the world’s greatest content, it’s like having a television without a channel guide or even a remote control.”
Project Lightning is that remote control. The plan, outlined in the Buzzfeed article, is to expose Twitter to a wider audience by bringing curated, event-based Twitter content to visitors, whether or not they’re logged in. The collections of content will also be syndicated on other websites and mobile apps.
This means that finding the best Twitter content about important events happening around the world will be much easier. Users will have the benefit of added context for the tweets they’re viewing, and non-users can quickly consume the most relevant, high-quality information available on Twitter.
As of now, what we know about how Project Lightning will work comes from quotes from Twitter employees given to reporters and articles by major online publications. The feature could change significantly before launch, so ideas about functionality are largely speculative.
Project Lightning will likely be accessed through a button, initially available only in the Twitter mobile app, in the center of the home navigation. It will offer users a selection of the best, most informative tweets around popular events, from big sports games to awards ceremonies, unexpected natural disasters, and even trending memes (think Alex from Target).
The tweets won’t appear in a standard timeline format; instead, they’ll be selected for their pertinence and rich images or video, and displayed full screen in the mobile app. In other words, Project Lightning is about telling stories with the most relevant, highest quality visual content that people are publishing on Twitter around the world. Users can swipe through one tweet at a time or fast-forward using a scroll bar at the bottom of the screen.
Twitter employees will hand-curate around seven to 10 events each day. Users will also be able to follow an event they’re interested in, which will add any selected tweets for that event to their regular timeline. Once the event is over, it will be automatically unfollowed. This allows users to jump right into a specific event without having to take the time to follow a selection of accounts or find the right hashtags.
In a recent Q&A, Kevin Weil explained to The Verge that Project Lightning recognizes that not every Twitter user wants to invest time and energy creating the perfect timeline; they want content discovery to be automatic, easy, and intuitive.
“So it’s again breaking this notion of a purely reverse chronological home timeline where the tweets are only from the people you follow, and reimagining it to make it more about what’s happening now in your world that you care about. So what you’ll see when we can finally show you Project Lightning is that it’s instant, it’s immersive, and you can immediately understand what’s going on in your world as it plays out on Twitter.”
The Project Lightning user experience isn’t entirely new; it’s a similar approach to how Snapchat curates content for its Live Stories, which are collections of user-generated Snaps related to a live event.
Facebook has also launched an events-based discovery tool that draws on posts from a user’s friends as well as public content related to an event.
But Twitter’s Project Lightning sets itself apart in a few ways, primarily through serving up content to anyone who visits the Twitter site (not just users who are logged in), which should help Twitter attract new users.
Moreover, it opens up exciting possibilities for embedding Twitter content on other sites. Instead of static, single tweets, third-party sites and apps could include a best-of, interactive collection of curated Twitter content, from images to Periscope videos and Vines.
Eventually, we might see embedded Project Lightning collections become a primary source of traffic and views for Twitter in the same way that embedded videos are for YouTube.
Imagine a sports fan who has never used Twitter reading an online article about her favorite football team reaching the Super Bowl. She sees an embedded Project Lightning feed with the latest, most compelling tweets related to her team’s performance. Immediately, the power of Twitter is demonstrated without the need to install the Twitter app on her smartphone, search for hashtags, or follow the necessary Twitter handles.
Also, since Project Lightning uses real humans to select which content makes the cut, it evokes the style of standard digital editorial content, like the article-slideshows you might find on Refinery29 or Forbes. Weil confirmed that they’re even developing editorial guidelines for curating Project Lightning content – this is Twitter dipping its toes into publisher territory.
Bringing curated Twitter timelines to non-Twitter apps and the wider web has clear potential for monetization. A single embedded Tweet is difficult to monetize – overlays or banners could be added, but they would be disruptive to the user experience. Meanwhile, a narrative, horizontal sequence of full-screen tweets could easily accommodate promoted content (with pricing based on impressions)
Twitter could even allow brands to sponsor entire Project Lightning collections, much in the same way that brands sponsor Snapchat Stories. A brand’s logo could appear below or above the embedded Project Lightning feed, and sponsored Tweets could appear within it.
Project Lightning focuses on enhancing the individual user experience, but what does it mean for brands?
Twitter has been moving away from purely text-based content and toward media-rich tweets for a while. Now that it has Vine and Periscope in its tool belt, users can easily embed looping video and livestreams into their tweets alongside images. Project Lightning, with its full screen format and emphasis on visual narrative, means that brands that create compelling visual content around big events with a variety of media are more likely to be featured.
Over to you: what do you think about Project Lightning?
About the Author: Jamie O’Brien is part of the Sprinklr content team and is based in Singapore. In a previous life, he was a digital art director in London. He likes to get away from the city as often as is humanly possible to snowboard, dive, or hike.
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