Twitter excels in capturing the "moment" as events happen, but it isn't great at telling a story. With custom timelines, the company hopes to lure a broader audience by giving it coherent narratives rather than just the raw materials.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledges that the short messaging service he runs can be confusing and opaque for first-time users. Hashtags, @ signs, DMs, lists, retweets, and vacuous tweets are not ideal when you want to colonize the entire planet.
When asked on "CBS Sunday Morning" where he sees Twitter in 10 years, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said, "We want to reach every single person on the planet."
Twitter has a long way to go. So far, the service has about 230 million unique monthly active users. It's a good start unless you compare it to Facebook's 1.2 billion. What's clear is that getting the 7 billion more on board will require more than the noisy, machine-gun of 500 million-plus chronological tweets per day.
It turns out that Twitter's strength as a real-time messaging platform is also the source of its challenges in broadening the audience. Twitter excels in capturing the 'moment' as events happen with its last-in, first-up format. It has transformed how a digitally savvy minority on the planet watches and engages in live events, from presidential debates and Arab Springs to the final episode of "Breaking Bad" and the Olympics. It's a kind of play-by-play and commentary as events, or thoughts, unfold. But it doesn't present the kind of storytelling that appeals to those who don't want to jump head first into a maelstrom of tweets.
In the aftermath of its IPO, Twitter is trying to offer a way to reduce the noise level and tell stories. The new custom timelines announced today basically allow users to author curated timelines that display tweets and their constituent parts, such as photos and videos, in any order.
Unfortunately, at launch custom timelines require Twitter's TweetDeck application, although they can be shared with others via public Web pages or embeds on Web sites.
It's not an original concept. Storify, for example, allows users to compose stories by curating tweets as well as other media. But if Twitter can start promoting coherent, curated narratives rather than just the raw materials, it could broaden its appeal and earning potential.