Twitter launched a new features earlier this month called Moments. Moments offers a curated and frequently updated collection of tweets that the company describes as the “best of what’s happening on Twitter.”
Various headings like ‘Today’, ‘News’, ‘Sports’, ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Fun’ are used with Moments and they showcase a series of text, video and photo tweets on topics ranging from cute pets to the latest developments in the US presidential race.
This new features has attracted a lot of attention from all over the globe, mainly because it shows that Twitter is actively trying to reverse its slow growth, and also the fact that it relies on human curators to do the job. This reliance on human expertise raises important questions over the value of people in tech-driven information services and the limits of today’s cutting-edge software.
Why does Twitter need Moments now?
The main reason why this features was introduced was to counteract Twitter’s stagnating user growth. Twitter was launched in 2006 and has struggled to penetrate the US market. With only 20% of the US adult population uses Twitter, compared to 62% who use Facebook, 26% who use Pinterest, 24% who use Instagram and 22% who use LinkedIn.
Moments was designed to highlight a key function of Twitter. Data from GlobalWebIndex’s Social report indicate that Twitter is most widely used as a news service. As the chart shows, 41% of Twitter users report having read a news story on Twitter in the last 30 days, and 35% report having logged in to see what’s happening (without posting), or to look at trending topics.
Moments also allows you to look at the news of the day, which allows you to access interesting information that’s trending at the moment.
Second, Moments makes it easier to navigate Twitter. Instead of the disorganized, reverse chronological timeline that the platform’s experienced users are familiar with, Moments provides a stable and structured collection of content. For new users who find the Twitter interface confusing, Moments offers clarity and ease.
How does Moments work?
Moments has an interesting technology behind it. The content in Moments is not selected by algorithm; it’s entirely selected by human beings at Twitter, with help from news organisations like The New York Times and the Washington Post. In other words, rather than looking for software-based solutions to its user-growth problem, Twitter has turned to human beings. For Twitter, this means higher-quality content and less risk of embarrassing errors (which the company experienced with earlier, algorithm-based attempts at aggregation).
For news organisations, involvement with features like Moments represents an opportunity to attract traffic to their sites as they struggle to adapt to the impact that social media is having on the news business.
Twitter’s decision to use human curators comes at a time when the threat of sophisticated robotics and software to human employees in industries ranging from food service to journalism has become a prominent news topic. But as concern over this issue mounts, a growing number of technology companies are replacing algorithms and software with human beings.
Examples abound beyond Twitter’s human-curated Moments. At YouTube, an Alphabet (formerly Google) subsidiary, the company recently announced that it would partner with the humans at news agency Storyful to curate a video news feed. Similarly, Apple has invested in expert human curators for both its news app and its music service.
Yoshua Bengio, a professor of computer science at the University of Montreal, says that current machine learning or artificial intelligence systems are highly undeveloped. Comparing such systems to human infants, Bengio explained, “They are even younger than babies; they are proto-babies, they are not nearly as smart as babies.”
This proto-infancy in machine learning was highlighted by an incident earlier this year, when Google’s photo recognition software mistakenly labeled an African-American couple as gorillas. Google apologised for the error, and took immediate steps to prevent any similar problems, but the inherent issue remains; current software is just too stupid to make the calls that adult humans would make intuitively.
So it’s likely a mistake to proclaim we’re entering a new era of human beings at places like Apple and Twitter. Instead, these developments may represent a pause in the march of mechanisation. Once the algorithms grow up, human curators may go the way of human auto workers.