Twitter is about to get bigger, and yet smaller too.
Today, the company announced it is rolling out two new and substantial features to its service: private chatrooms, and a tool that lets people capture, edit, and share videos. Either alone would be a big deal, but taken together, this feels almost like an entirely new service.
Twitter has become almost unrecognizable from its early days as a niche 140-character status updater. It can now natively host text, images, and video. It can wrap up audio and even web-page summaries in its cards. It's grown to become one of the most efficient broadcast platforms in existence, capable of rapidly disseminating information in a way never before possible. And yet it has managed to do that in a way that keeps its best feature from its earliest days — information density — intact.
Its challenge is to both maintain that density and find new features that will get more people using it — or at least looking at it. Adding native video and private group messaging is not just a big product change, it's a major play from a company coming off of a rough year. Twitter's product development has largely come to be viewed as stagnant. Investors have become increasingly unhappy with its lack of growth, and many have even called for its CEO's head. These features aren't mere add-ons to an established product, they are arguments. They're laying out a new vision for its future. They argue that it's the best place to both document and analyze the world we live in, in both big, public-facing and small, private ways.
For Twitter power users, the private group chats — an expansion of its direct message capabilities — will be a welcome addition to the platform. The company has long neglected the direct messaging feature that lets people communicate backchannel out of the public eye. This new group direct-messaging function will let up to 20 people participate in private discussions that are functionally somewhat similar to chatrooms.
According to the company's blog post:
The group function lets you start conversations with any of your followers and they don’t all need to follow one another in order to chat. You can create a group in just a few taps. When you're added to a group, you'll get a notification.
For Twitter this is a chance to keep the conversation inside its own service. Many ideas and conversations begin on Twitter and then jump to other social networks, websites, and independent messaging clients as the discussions become increasingly complex and unwieldy, or simply require too many @ addresses in the 140-character message field to make meaningful discussions possible. Now, rather than head someplace else, users can take conversations out of the public domain yet still engage with a diverse group.
Part of Twitter's charm is its ability to host public conversations among celebrities, journalists, public figures, and casual users alike. The new private group discussion feature seems like it could kill that. But Twitter Product Director Jinen Kamdar told BuzzFeed News he doesn't believe it will cannibalize the organic open conversation that sets Twitter apart from other social networks.
"Every Tweet is a conversation-starter and we see it happening all the time and figured it makes sense for this to live inside the service," he said. "l think these private conversations can totally live alongside the public ones without issue. In any mode of communication you have moments where you do want it private and don't want it accessible. That shouldn't take away from what's public. It's just another avenue to chat within the app."
If expanding direct messages is a way for Twitter to collapse inside itself, then the company's second update is a way for the social network to expand its window to the world. As of today, the company will begin rolling out an in-app video camera and light editing software, where users can record up to 30 seconds of footage and post it directly to Twitter. Much like Vine (which is owned by Twitter), the service will allow users to shoot multiple mini-scenes and then drag, drop, and rearrange them into a full clip.
It's a move that's likely somewhat based on the recent success of Vine during breaking news situations. Over the past year, citizen journalists and bigger, more established outlets have begun adopting Vine's six second clips into news coverage, either as quick-hit highlights or part of raw, on-the-ground reportage. As my colleague Mat Honan wrote yesterday, "instead of a stage, [Vine has] started to feel a bit more like a window."
Yet despite its Twitter pedigree, the problem with Vine is that it has a barrier to entry: It's an entirely separate application, and you have to register for it before you can use it the first time. That means the act of taking your phone out of your pocket, recording a video, and sharing it on Twitter has never been completely smooth. If you stumble upon something happening, and don't already have a Vine account, getting that video up to Twitter took a bunch of steps.
So while sharing video on Twitter has long been possible, this is Twitter making it easy and bringing it right inside the main app itself. Due to its devoted network of journalists, news organizations, and activists, Twitter feels hungry for this feature, which will provide these groups with the ability to document and distribute their point of view with less effort than ever before. Twitter video will be instantly usable and shareable in a way posting from Vine or YouTube never quite has been.
According to Twitter's blog post:
We designed our camera to be simple to use so you can capture and share life’s most interesting moments as they happen. In just a few taps you can add a video to unfolding conversations, share your perspective of a live event, and show your everyday moments instantly, without ever having to leave the app. Viewing and playing videos is just as simple: videos are previewed with a thumbnail and you can play them with just one tap.
Together, the updates flesh out Twitter as a more holistic service. If put to good use, Twitter can be a place where professional devotees and casual users alike can broadcast their experience, experiment and create new visual formats, and then convene to discuss among peers and acquaintances, all without leaving Twitter's network.
Put together, the updates reveal a network that has the ability to be aggressively noisy but also comprehensive. A window to the world as well as a place to analyze and debate everything that world has to offer.