Down with Twitter’s Project Lightning

Twitter is apparently preparing a reboot.  It’s code-named Project Lightning, and will offer a very new approach to the platform.  It’s also a lousy idea.

lightningLet me start with a caveat. This post is provisional.   I’m working off of a Buzzfeed article and a Wired reaction piece.  We don’t know how Lightning – I refuse to call it Twitter 2.0 – is actually structured and how it will really work once rolled out.

The gist, as far as I understand it, is that Twitter will hire an editorial team who will select and (re)publish Twitter content.  The emphasis will be on major events, around which people are most likely to contribute and consumer tweets, photos, and video.  Buzzfeed says:

To put them together, [Katie Jacobs Stanton, who runs Twitter’s global media operations] is building out a new media team of people in its major markets throughout the world, all of whom, she says, have newsroom backgrounds. They’ll use data tools to comb through events and understand emerging trends, and pluck the best content from the ocean of updates flowing across Twitter’s servers. But human beings will decide which tweets to include.

Supposedly this curated Twitter will be available to users at the touch of a (presumably well-placed) button.  The stuff can be embedded on websites, like YouTube videos, so non-Twitter-users can still see it.  As Wired’s David Pierce puts it,

Twitter’s editorial team (made of real, live humans) will define the big stories of the day, and will package tweets, images, and video to explain what’s going on. Those packages will be the primary unit of Twitter, and will be embeddable all over the Internet.

Why is Twitter planning to shoot Lightning into the world?  Because investors want them to grow the number of users, so as to have more eyeballs for more ads.  Why isn’t Twitter getting more users?  Because the experience is a mess for too many people, says Wired.

It is an inscrutable mix of breaking news, valuable commentary, horrible trolling, and brands saying bae to get you to eat chicken nuggets…

If Twitter does this right, Lightning will make Twitter more accessible, simpler, and friendlier.

So what’s so bad about Lightning, then?

We already do this.  We Twitter users are all about curation.  That’s why we find, follow, and/or unfollow people.  That’s why we use lists, groups of people we think contribute content that we really want to see.  (Please note that the word “list” shows up exactly nowhere on that Buzzfeed piece and precisely zero times in the Wired piece.)  We have learned and use what Howard Rheingold calls network literacy.

That’s why we use trending topics.  Right there on’s main page, over on the left, you can see what folks are discussing with the greatest interest.  Right now I find #nationalkissingday, JonStewart, #Juneteenth, #IvoryCrush, #fridayreads, #smwknd, Ralph Roberts, IMAX, and Ruth Burger.  I understand about half of those, which is cool, since I can ignore or explore the others.   (Note that neither Buzzfeed nor Wired mentions trending topics. Buzzfeed thinks Lightning will “use data tools to comb through events and understand emerging trends”, which is a different thing.)

Christopher Rice: "Twitter, as a company, still doesn't understand its customers, its product or its value proposition. Ugh."

That’s why we use different Twitter apps.  I, for example, rely almost exclusively on Tweetdeck, where I have build up a multi-column dashboard.  Fourteen columns feed me tweets on topics I made and deem worthy, some organized by lists: key futurists, interesting political commentators, digital humanities experts, and funny Twitter accounts (Florida Man, Academia Obscura, Nihilist Arby’s, etc.).  I also run a bunch of hashtag searches in columns, like #latism (because I don’t know much about Latino culture), #smalltales (a nifty digital storytelling tag), #NMCHz (the Horizon Report), and #NAWD (academic adjunct activism).  If I’m involved in or paying attention to an event, I run a column search (or two) for that as well.

Part of my Tweetdeck view

Three columns from my Tweetdeck view.

At this point in time Twitter is now a very useful tool for me and for millions of other people.  It works well for news, professional developments, research, networking, entertainment, and keeping up with friends.  So I’m biased against anything that goes against this.  I get it.  I have become a defender of the status quo.  I know the rhetorical risks.

But Lightning will be awful.  Not different; worse.

New Coke canWhat an impoverished experience Lightning will be.  Instead of the content stream, we’ll get single doses, according to Buzzfeed: “None of that media is presented in the standard Twitter timeline — each tweet, picture, or video will take up the entire screen of your phone. You’ll view them one at a time by swiping.”  Like a magazine, perhaps, or Headline News.  Or like Snapchat.

There are no mentions I can find of how users can influence what Lightning selects for us. Unlike, say, Google News, where we can add, subtract, create, and modify news categories, New Twitter will simply give us what it thinks is best.  What a step back from the 21st century and social media!

Removing user activity might be the simplest definition of Lightning.  Listen to David Pierce’s sad description: “Twitter may have, at long last, figured it out: shut us all up when we’re not saying something of consequence.”  Yes, Lightning will be actually be dribbled-out content bits, doled out by the kind mother Tweet bird: pabulum.

Listen to how Lightning’s editor describes the new order, and note the simile she uses: “[current Twitter is] like having a television without a channel guide or even a remote control. There’s no way to really find it or contextualize that content.”  Nearly every word is wrong in that statement.

  • Twitter as tv.  This is not true in any useful way.  But it reveals much about Lightning’s assumptions: Twitter as broadcast medium, controlled, largely passively consumed.
  • “without a channel guide or even a remote control.”  That’s what user curation is about.  That’s what others users help with.  Heck, Twitter’s almost a decade old, folks.  We’ve had years to develop practices and technologies.
  • “There’s no way to really find it or contextualize that content” – please see the rest of this blog post, or the actual activity of users (Chris, you nailed it).  Or: if you think Twitter search is a problem, Lightning is only a solution if you make it the center of Twitter to come.

Check out how the Wired piece builds on this poor view of Twitter:

this effort puts a stake through the idea that Twitter is a social network. It’s not. It never should have tried to be. It’s not about people, jokes, and #brands. It’s about information, about news and pictures and stories.

Twitter as tv.  Everything you love about Headline News, but in Twitter!  If you thought Network described a model to aspire to, you’ll dig Lightning.

Did you catch Pierce’s damning, damning admission? “[I]t’s not about people”.  Meditate on that for a while.  Well said, sir.  You are now the enemy of the rest of us busily using Twitter productively and with pleasure.

Pierce justifies this anti-user stance by describing a terrible Twitter experience, one far removed from my own, and one which seemingly calls out for drastic reform:

Twitter has been co-opted by people who saw a global billboard service rather than a messaging tool. It is an inscrutable mix of breaking news, valuable commentary, horrible trolling, and brands saying bae to get you to eat chicken nuggets. The reward—the retweets, the favs, the Brand Activation Opportunities—were so enticing, and the penalties—the bad jokes that ended careers, the DM fails that killed campaigns—were so scary, that that everyone on Twitter just tried too hard to be cool.

I expect we’ll see more of this hellscape trotted out to justify Lightning.  Choose Lightning for the sake of decency.

Pierce goes on, attacking not just Twitter in general, but slamming its users directly.  He has to start reaching deep into the pockets of FUD to make this work:

In the Reputation Economy, speed, bloviation, and #engagement are prized far above the actual dissemination of useful information. We tweet every morsel of some breaking news story whether we know anything about it or not, aware that the stream moves too fast to really come back to haunt us (except when it does). We take shots at anyone we can, just to get noticed. We become the most insidery version of ourselves, making dumb jokes with the person in the cubicle next to us just to feel cool in the eyes of a few thousand followers. We troll, because it’s so removed and so easy to screw with people on the Internet. Or we withdraw, torn to bits by the mess that is anyone with a keyboard and a masked IP address.

Twitter makes us bad people!  Twitter massages our id!  Save us from our corrupted, vile selves, o Lightning!

Even if we Twitterers are such monsters, Lighting will not address one real problem: users abusing other users.  Apparently we can still terrorize each other even after Lighting launches.  It won’t impact threats.  Abuse just won’t show up in Lightning… so perhaps this will be one argument used to urge us away from the user-world of Twitter.

The real problem for Twitter is that that user-world isn’t growing fast enough.  We users aren’t a good enough base for advertising.  Investors are demanding Twitter keep up with the new kids (Snapchat) and try to catch up with the giant (Facebook).  I understand that.  But Lightning ain’t going to do it.

  1. It won’t add users.  It will just be another news source, of which there are plenty.
  2. It won’t fix Twitter. Maybe Lightning won’t strike what we now have, but exist in parallel to it.  I doubt it, but let’s assume that happens for the sake of argument.  Current users won’t have much to do with that daily stack of curated content.  We’ll just go on doing what we now do.
  3. It may weaken the current Twitter experience.  Let’s say Lightning succeeds in drawing some current users into its world.  Those users may decide to retweet and issue hashtags less frequently.  They could tweet less often, preferring to sit back and watch those precious single screens of content dribbled out by the Tweety bird.  This will reduce content for the rest of us.
  4. It could attack the current Twitterverse.  If become serious about monetizing Lightning as an alternative to current Twitter, they could dun Legacy Twitter in favor of New Twitter.  They might encourage users to migrate, to get with the program, to be hip and stop tweeting so much.  Investors might ask why Twitter still spends so many resources on maintaining that nasty hellscape of tv-channel-less people who fling content without understanding the beauty of professional curation.  And how would Twitter respond?

Twitter Lightning, New Twitter: stop it now.

(lightning photo by Tom Haymes; New Coke can picture from Wikipedia; thanks to Phil Long for alerting me to this story; thanks to @injenuity @fncll @cogdog @derekbruff @JeremySCook @EvensonCA @ricetopher for contributing thoughts on Twitter.  Funny how that works.)

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8 Responses to Down with Twitter’s Project Lightning

  1. davidjhinson says:

    Reblogged this on Logorrhea and commented:
    Great breakdown on Twitter Lightning by Bryan Alexander.

  2. lindaleea says:

    People really do not understand twitter. When I tell them, I get most of my news from twitter they think I am crazy. It is a conversation, and not just a place to post events. yes, it takes time to find people to follow and you need to clean your feed up now and then. Twitter – leave it be…

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    FB envy? Twitter wants a filter bubble of its own

  4. CogDog says:

    Speculation is fun, but, after my first WTF reaction, I am not seeing a significant change coming that will make me want to run for the next _______. The way I read the stories is that this is going to be the public facing view of twitter. The quote reads:

    and will package tweets, images, and video to explain what’s going on.

    Where do those tweets come from? Tweeting shall continue is coal into the engine. Ranking of personalities by followers and activity seems to have value.

    Twitter it is core is a database, and there are many ways to present the data from the database- they are changing the presentation as a new thing, but I di not see technically how that precludes us from other views via third party tools. They cannot turn off the stream, but they might push it off the front page.

    No need to blow up the life rafts yet, IMHO.

    • Excellent thoughts, Alan. I appreciate your wisdom.
      And your elegant distillation of Twitter as database.

      I agree that there’s no need to charge for lifeboats right now.

      What worries me is how Twitter may respond if Lightning succeeds.

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