‘Moments’ is Twitter for the rest of us

With me and Facebook, it was love at first sight. Since logging on in 2006, I’ve posted thousands of messages, made thousands of online friends, and spent far too many hours bathing in a warm digital Jacuzzi of news and opinion.

My relationship with the rival social network Twitter is a bit more nuanced. With more than a billion registered users, Twitter is a communication channel too important to ignore. So I’ll tweet out a link to my latest Globe story, or tweet my e-mail address to a hard-to-reach newsmaker. But then I’ll log off without a backward glance. I may have to use Twitter, but I’ve never much liked it.

And I’m not alone; two-thirds of registered Twitter users don’t actually use it. The company lost a half-billion dollars last year and $137 million in its most recent quarter. In response, Twitter has rehired co-founder Jack Dorsey as chief executive. It’s laying off 8 percent of its workforce. And it’s rolling out a new feature called Moments that’s designed to make Twitter more appealing to newbies and veteran users alike. It’s a smart upgrade, that just might have a magnetic attraction to news junkies.

Moments takes aim at Twitter’s biggest flaw – its sheer, bewildering randomness. Twitter is white noise for the eyes – a relentless stream of itty-bitty messages, often without any context to help you judge their relevance. Even when you search for a specific topic using the hashtag feature, the results are about 80 percent rubbish. And thanks to the 140-character message limit, even noteworthy tweets are an irritating tease. They’re just interesting enough to rouse your curiosity, but too brief to satisfy it.

Moments uses humans to filter and focus the Twitter torrent. A team of editors picks out the most interesting tweets about the most interesting topics of the day – breaking news, sports, movie-star gossip, and the like. With the click of a mouse or the tap of a touchscreen, the user is linked to a selection of related photos, videos, and messages.

The result is a snappy stream-of-consciousness overview of current events that works especially well on a smartphone. You can pop into a Moment dedicated to Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, then use your thumb to flip through candidate videos and snippets of political spin from their handlers. During the debate, you could “follow” the Moment and get instant alerts on the main Twitter timeline when new tweets and videos were added to the stack.

It works even better on breaking news stories with lots of visual content. One harrowing Moment about the aftermath of a bridge collapse in South Africa featured videos from the scene, shot and tweeted by eyewitnesses with smartphones. A minute spent viewing this Moment brought home the horror and tragedy of it all.

Thanks to the 140-character limit, Moments isn’t much good for in-depth coverage. For that, you’re better off with the “Trending” feature on Facebook. This service, launched early last year, features the most popular stories among Facebook users, then filters them according to the user’s location or the Facebook pages she regularly follows. As a result, my Facebook Trending stories may be different from yours.

Facebook Trending serves up full-length stories from major media sites, with those posted by your Facebook friends at the top of the pile. Once you’ve read one or two stories, you know enough to have an opinion on the topic, so you can kick off a good-natured debate with your online friends. I’ve blown many an hour this way – my tiny contribution to Mark Zuckerberg’s billions.

Remember that Facebook and Twitter alike make their money from advertising, so they want us to keep coming back and to stick around as long as possible. According to a Cowen and Co. poll from last year, the average American adult spent 42 minutes a day on Facebook, but 17 minutes on Twitter. Moments is Twitter’s bid to create a feature so sticky that even reluctant users like me will drop by more often.

It could work, in a small way. Moments won’t hold a user’s attention for very long; it’s too well-designed for that. But it’s a good reason to visit Twitter again and again, even when you’ve got nothing to say. I’ve averaged one tweet a day in the five years I’ve been on Twitter, and Moments won’t do much to boost my batting average. But there’s no harm in looking for a few minutes now and then. I’ll make it up to Facebook somehow.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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