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Twitter's Best Idea For Keeping Up With News Is Buried Too Deep

If Twitter's value is telling you what's happening 10 to 15 minutes before everyone else, why isn't the feature that does that best at the front and center of the app?

Posted on June 24, 2016, at 3:38 p.m. ET

Two major news events unfolded this week with the kind of incremental and quickly evolving updates that made Twitter an ideal place to follow both. On Wednesday, a group of congressional Democrats staged a sit-in on the House floor to protest gun violence. And on Thursday, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Throughout both, informed insiders tweeted bits of news and information you simply couldn’t find elsewhere. But unless you were already following those people, or saw a retweet, their updates may as well not have existed; they were trees falling in empty forests. It doesn't have to be that way.

Twitter is built on a follow model, which is great for some use cases, but also means you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff from people you don’t follow. Unless you followed certain Democratic lawmakers, you likely missed lots of action from the House floor during the sit-in this week. But there’s a solution to that: A Twitter that temporarily inserts relevant tweets from the right people at the right moment into your timeline would be a much more useful Twitter. Amazingly, this Twitter already exists but is buried puzzlingly deep within the platform’s user interface.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is fond of pitching his service as the place you go to see what’s happening 10 to 15 minutes before anywhere else. And it’s true — possessing this information is what’s helped grow Twitter to over 310 million active users. But the company has struggled to grow beyond that, largely because the information Dorsey references is very, very difficult to unearth.

Alex Kantrowitz

That’s why Twitter released a product last fall, called Moments, that attempts to solve this problem. Moments curates the best things happening on Twitter and presents them in a collection format in a dedicated tab. These curated stories are often fairly anticlimactic, though, since, by virtue of being curated, they’re both after-the-fact and highly selective.

But there’s another component to Moments that’s been fantastically useful the past few days — if you could find it. Moments also includes an optional temporary follow function that, if you opt in, inserts tweets into your timeline from people you don’t follow when they’re pertinent to the news, sports, or entertainment event you’re following, and then, when the event is over, the temporary follow ends.

You don’t have to check in on the Moment to see these; they appear automatically in your timeline — which means you can stay up to date on events as they happen, without having to either follow lots of new people, or check in again and again on a live Moment.

Poll: Can you temporarily follow topics on Twitter?

During both the congressional sit-in and Britain's EU vote, Twitter’s temporary follow function was indispensable. It pushed through tweets from political journalists, beltway insiders, and members of Congress during the sit-in, and updates from British bloggers, politicians, and even a BBC bot during the referendum. And it did so all in that 10- to 15-minute early window, so if you opted in, you experienced the value of Twitter with just a single click.

This function works for new and casual users trying to figure out how (and why) to use Twitter. And it also works for power users who have geared their feeds toward other interests.

The temporary follow was one of the initial ideas for Moments, yet it’s surprisingly difficult to find. It is buried in the Moments tab, accessible via a “Follow” button that’s sometimes there and sometimes not. In a (very unscientific) poll I conducted on Twitter yesterday, only about a third over 175 participants said they knew the function existed.

@Kantrowitz 💯. That was the initial Moments idea - basically just a menu of events to ephemeral follow. The whole standalone tab came later.

Conversations with Twitter insiders and tech executives often come back to Twitter’s need to emphasize the temporary follow. “Twitter would be great to add ways to let people follow topics and individuals temporarily. Either to see all of their tweets or even just the best ones,” former Twitter product manager and now venture capitalist Josh Elman told BuzzFeed News.

Twitter seems to have added extra attention to the temporary follow function this week, with the U.K. Moments team playfully teasing the U.S. team about whose would run for longer. But it’s unclear whether the company plans to unleash it further. Asked if there were any plans to make the temporary follow more prominent, Twitter declined to comment.

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