Tech

This Is Twitter’s Top Secret Project Lightning

The new tool will give the company a way to show the best of Twitter to both logged-in and logged-out users on a variety of platforms. It will have instantly loading videos and rich images, and will occupy a front-and-center location in an upcoming version of the Twitter app.

Michelle Rial/BuzzFeed

Dick Costolo is bouncing in his chair. He’s just vibrating. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours before he will make public his resignation as Twitter’s CEO. And right now, he’s ebullient.

“So,” he asks, excitedly, spinning side to side in his chair a bit. “What did you think?”

Costolo is asking about Project Lightning, a major new feature for Twitter — and a new direction for the company that will launch later this year. Project Lightning will bring event-based curated content to the Twitter platform, complete with immersive and instant-load photos and videos and the ability to embed those experiences across the Web — and even in other apps.

“It’s a brand-new way to look at tweets,” says Kevin Weil, who runs product for the company. “This is a bold change, not evolutionary.”

It is also still a few months out, and things could change. But here’s how it will work.

On Twitter’s mobile app, there will be a new button in the center of the home row. Press it and you’ll be taken to a screen that will show various events taking place that people are tweeting about. These could be based on prescheduled events like Coachella, the Grammys, or the NBA Finals. But they might also focus on breaking news and ongoing events, like the Nepalese earthquake or Ferguson, Missouri. Essentially, if it’s an event that a lot of people are tweeting about, Twitter could create an experience around it.

“It’s around anything that’s interesting,” Weil explains. “It could be current events. It could be breaking news. It could be awards shows or sports. But also cultural events and moments — things around your location and where you are. There’s amazing content, for example, posted to Throwback Thursday every single Thursday. But it’s hard to discover it; you have to work as a user to go and find the best stuff, but [we] can do it easily and can package it richly.”

Launch one of these events and you’ll see a visually driven, curated collection of tweets. A team of editors, working under Katie Jacobs Stanton, who runs Twitter’s global media operations, will select what it thinks are the best and most relevant tweets and package them into a collection.

These collections are designed to take advantage of images and videos associated with a particular event, and to bring them to life. 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. Importantly, collections will include — and thus promote — not only pictures and videos posted to Twitter, but Vines and Periscope videos as well.

All of these videos play automatically — and they load almost instantly. They just fire as you swipe over to them — that’s the idea, anyway.

You can click in and simply scroll through a curated event, and as you do a scrub bar along the bottom of the Twitter client tracks your progress until you either reach its end or catch up with tweets being posted in real time. So, for example, as you scrolled through tweets about the Super Bowl during the third quarter, the bar might start an hour or two before kickoff, and as you progressed through all of the curated videos and photos you’d eventually hit the most current, identified by a lightning bolt icon.

This BuzzFeed-created artist rendering showing how a final version of Project Lightning might look. Images and videos appear full screen as you swipe through them. A timeline across the bottom shows you where you are in an event as it progresses over time. MIchelle Rial/BuzzFeed

What’s more, you can also opt to follow an event and have curated tweets blended into your timeline. And that doesn’t mean you follow accounts where those tweets originate. So, for example, while you might see Ellen DeGeneres’ tweets from the Grammys in a curated Grammys event, you would not actually begin following her if you were not already. When the Grammys end, so do the tweets. In other words, you automatically unfollow an event at its conclusion. And you can still experience curated events without following anything just by going to that center tab.

Finally, you can access these Lightning events on or off Twitter — whether you’re logged in, active, or not. You’ll be able to view them on Twitter.com, on the mobile web, in its apps, and even as embeds on other webpages. If they are embedded off-site, the events will continue to update as more curated tweets are added.

“There’s a beautiful connection to our strategy of reaching users on every platform,” says Weil. “It’s not just logged-in Twitter, it’s logged-out, and it’s syndicated on other websites and mobile apps. This reaches all of them. The collections are a core part of our logged-in experience — that’s the point of being in the center tab. But you can easily imagine them as logged-out experiences telling about something happening now out in the world. And you can imagine them — and this is new — as collections and syndicating them across any website or mobile app.”

That last bit is important because it’s a play to get Twitter in front of a lot more eyeballs. For the past year, as Wall Street has demanded user growth, Twitter has promoted the notion that what matters is not how many people use its service, but how many see tweets. Project Lightning is not just a way to reach more eyeballs; it’s also a gateway drug that Twitter hopes will convert those eyeballs into active users. More to the point, it’s a way to help people who might find Twitter confusing connect with events that are important to them and are also driving discussion on Twitter.

“We’ve seen in the past that we have so much conversation around events,” Stanton explains. “The Oscars, or the NBA Finals. Breaking news events like Ferguson. Memes like Alex From Target. … But the challenge we’ve had over the years is, although we have the world’s greatest content, it’s 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. So [Project Lightning] is this beautiful vessel for us to surface great content and make it more delightful.”

To put them together, Stanton 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. That could put Twitter in an editorial position — deciding what to include and from whom — in a way it hasn’t really been before.

“We’re developing an editorial policy around those judgement calls,” says Stanton. “We’re making sure that there’s fairness and integrity, and that we have a set of guidelines we can review before saying yes to that particular tweet or video and including it in Project Lightning.”

Twitter anticipates posting seven to ten of these events a day. But Costolo tells BuzzFeed News that the company intends to eventually open up the tool that it uses to build curated events to other organizations. So someday a publication focused on a niche interest like, say, sailing could create a collection around an event that might not be big enough to broadcast to Twitter’s entire audience, but would still be appealing to a niche demographic.

The idea for Project Lightning has been around for some time now. It began as a hack day project in January, and has been presented at multiple board meetings. BuzzFeed News learned about parts of the project and approached Twitter for more details, which were provided last week.

All of that seemed to be thrown into flux just a few days after the demo, when Costolo announced he was stepping down. But both Costolo and incoming interim CEO Jack Dorsey, the burly-bearded iCEO, insist Twitter remains committed to Project Lightning.

“Yes,” says Dorsey in response to a question about his commitment to the initiative. “Yes, period. We’ve seen this at a few board meetings now, and I’m super excited about it, because it’s extremely engaging.”

The concept of Project Lightning is one for which critics have long clamored: an experience that lets people who aren’t hardcore Twitter users — or Twitter users at all — suck up the flow of real-time information without needing a deep understanding of Twitter’s product. It’s a way to show highlights of the news in real time as flows and crests. While that might be a feature that was many months in the making, it’s also, conceptually at least, something that should have happened years ago.

After all, Twitter has experimented with surfacing event-related content before, starting with its elections.twitter.com subsite in 2008 and continuing through this past week when it prompted users to check out the NBA Finals. But the company never managed to really nail a way for people who weren’t already invested in Twitter to get much out of its real time nature, and that certainly contributed to the drumbeat of critics calling for Costolo’s head. Could that be why Twitter is only now getting around to it?

Costolo, however, says Project Lightning is not a response to critics. “It’s been in the works for a long, long time,” he explains. “I have no doubt that when it launches people will create a narrative that it was the result of something critical. People think I read something and then two months later we launched something — but that’s not the way this works. This has been in the works for months and months.”

And there are still months more left, too. While its videos may load and play in an instant, Project Lightning itself will have been a long time coming.

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.
Contact Mat Honan at mat.honan@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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