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March 4, 2020, 2:51 p.m.

Twitter, the most news-friendly social platform, is getting a little bit less so with Stories-like “fleets”

Twitter’s version of the ubiquitous format is an important advance for people wanting to separate the public and long-lasting from the private and ephemeral. But publishers aren’t likely to benefit from a less broadcast-oriented Twitter.

A good idea is hard to protect. And it is by now utterly clear that one of the great Internet ideas of the past decadeSnapchat’s introduction of “Stories” in 2013 — is destined to be copied again and again and again.

The genius of Stories combines a few elements: They’re visual, typically made up of photos or videos taken with your phone’s camera. They’re temporary, disappearing after 24 hours. They’re narrative; you can string a bunch of them to tell a larger story. They’re casual; your friends don’t expect framed perfection. And they’re personal; instead of being algorithmically sorted into a master feed, they’re organized by people and viewed more intentionally.

(Plus they have an incredibly annoying name, since “Stories” and regular old “stories” don’t mean the same thing, requiring people like me to capitalize what has become a format that stretches across apps.)

The first major app to steal Stories was Instagram, which was pretty blunt about the theft, using the same name and saying the format had “become universal.” Facebook Inc. eventually brought it to just about all of its products, including the core Facebook app, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Medium got Stories (“Series”), YouTube got Stories (“Reels”), Skype got Stories (“Highlights”). Google released AMP Stories. Hell, LinkedIn is even prepping a Stories feature, which biblical scholars have traditionally interpreted as a sign of the apocalypse.

Well, one more app joined their number today, and it’s an important one: Twitter.

Since it was founded in March 2006, there has been only one type of post possible on Twitter: a tweet. But starting today, the 280-character post is being joined by an ephemeral South American cousin: the fleet.

That’s what Twitter is calling these new, more fleeting tweets — posts that appear in a separate timeline above the main timeline for 24 hours before disappearing. In other words, yes, Twitter is finally doing Snapchat Stories, and the implementation looks nearly identical to Instagram’s version of the feature.

“Twitter is for having conversations about what you care about,” Mo Aladham, a Twitter group product manager, said in a blog post. “But, some of you tell us that you’re uncomfortable to tweet because tweets are public, feel permanent, and have public counts (retweets and likes). We want to make it possible for you to have conversations in new ways with less pressure and more control, beyond tweets and direct messages. That’s why starting today in Brazil, we’re testing fleets, a new way to start conversations from your fleeting thoughts.”

“Fleets” — not a bad name, really!

Not being Brazilian (one of my many flaws), I haven’t been able to try fleets out — but whatever their nuances, we know what a Stories-like experience does by now. And while I think this is very likely an excellent step forward for Twitter as a product — the one-size-fits-all format of a tweet has been creaking under the weight of its users for a while now — permit me to be a little sad about the downsides I suspect it’ll bring to news publishers and those of us who care about journalism.

First, a more positive thought: Journalists’ feeds are about to get a lot cleaner.

“What reporters should be allowed to tweet” has been landmined turf since the day the app was launched. That’s true at two levels.

There are the giant swarms of often less-than-well-intentioned actors who dig up some eight-year-old tweet to try to discredit a journalist — the lineal descendants of Gamergate. Then there’s the smaller but important way in which some people come to trust journalists a little bit less when they see a reporter express an opinion, seem to express favoritism, or just generally act like an unedited human being in their day-to-day tweets.

A core cause of those problems is that there is no way for a journalist to meaningfully distinguish between their Professional Tweets™ and their tossed-off thoughts best viewed only by friends. Fleets will make that distinction a lot more clear. So I’d expect to see many reporters start segregating their public and private(ish) lives more fully on Twitter.

On the other hand: Twitter is about to lose some of its newsiness.

Twitter is by far the most news-friendly of the major social platforms, and the reasons are baked directly into its structure.

Twitter is (mostly) a real-time platform. What you see by default is primarily what people are saying right now. That’s why it’s the platform that people flock to in times of breaking news, and it’s why people who can share real-time information about politics, sports, or any other sort of news have an advantage. Journalists are used to creating good content that has a short shelf life.

Twitter relationships are one-way. Facebook is fundamentally about two-way connections with your friends and family. While it has a “follow” feature, the standard relationship is one that both people must agree to be a part of. Twitter makes it easy for one person to broadcast to many — which is a pretty natural arrangement for people in media.

Twitter is built around text. Sure, you can have photos and videos and gifs, but it’s those 140 (280 now) characters that have always defined a tweet. Journalists are good at creating pithy, headline-length things.

Twitter makes URLs a first-class citizen of the platform. (Compare it to platforms like TikTok or Instagram that either don’t allow links at all or only in certain circumstances.) Tweeting out a link brings up a nice Twitter Card with a pretty picture and the metadata the publisher wants to feature. The brevity of those 280 characters obligates links for anything in-depth — and media companies are good at publishing things people might want to link to.

These structural features (and others) are why Twitter is by far the place that journalists most like to spend their social media energies. It can give you the feeling of a newsroom — the constant stream of new information, the back-and-forth, the array of expertise on display — like no other social platform.

But Media Twitter has always been only one part of Twitter, no matter how much we like to view ourselves as the center of its universe. There are lots of people on Twitter who couldn’t care less about what Trump just did, who see it as a place to joke around with friends, share memes, follow their favorite celebrities, and see what nutty thing @kanyewest just said. Lots of people. Most people! And some of Twitter’s biggest flaws, from their perspective, are tied up with its elements that are the most media-like.

For instance: Every single thing you have ever tweeted is, by default, stored and searchable forever. That is insane if you think of a tweet as a digital equivalent to a human conversation. No one is following you around your city all day, recording every word you speak to put in some eternal audio panopticon. And yet that’s what Twitter does.

If you work in the news media, the idea that your words eventually become part of some permanent record isn’t that strange! That’s a model we’re very familiar with. (Plus hey, we’re reporters — we like being able to drop a search term into Twitter and see what pops up.)

Another one: There are some things a normal human wants to tell the people who are close to them but not the rest of the world. But on Twitter, that’s now how it works; your account is either TOTALLY! PUBLIC! FOR! ALL! TO! SEE! or {[(hidden behind lock and key for only a select group)]}. That sort of one-to-everybody broadcast model is, again, not that weird for a journalist but crazy for normals.

Twitter’s very essence, the core of how it works, is at the heart of why it has become the social platform for news — even as some of those same elements have been a net negative for everybody else.

So where do fleets figure into this? It is, in a sense, Twitter choosing to become better for normals but a little worse for news.

Just as Instagram Stories made that platform more about friends and closer relationships, fleets will do the same to Twitter. Whose fleets will be most prominent at the top of your feed? The ones from people who you follow and who follow you back. Those people are much more likely to be your real-life friends than a publisher or a reporter whose work you like. The broadcast nature of Twitter drops a little.

By design, the content in fleets will be more personal in tone, on average, than the content in tweets. That fleets have more limited reach and disappear after 24 hours incentivizes more intimate content from those close to you. News publishers aren’t going to be as good at creating that sort of personal content as your friends are. (You’ll still be able to include a URL in a fleet, thankfully, but I’d wager a lot that URLs will be much less common in fleets than in tweets.)

You can’t retweet a fleet in the way you can retweet a tweet. (Say that three times fast.) That means it is harder for an individual piece of content to escape the bounds of one account and spread rapidly around Twitter. A fleet can’t go viral, can’t introduce your account to new people, expand your follower base. Those are all more important, strategically, to a news publisher than to the median Twitter user.

As Casey Newton puts it: “The main feed is for polished public performance, and stories are more about idle chitchat.” Publishers are quite good at the polished public performance business. Your friends are going to be way better in the idle chitchat business.

The reason this is all a little sad for me is that fleets are almost certainly a smart move for Twitter. This sort of shift is a very reasonable choice for a for-profit company to make! Especially one for whom journalists and news junkies are very much a minority (if noisy) share of their users.

Just about every major structural shift in social media for the past decade-plus has disadvantaged the interests of professional publishers and advantaged content created by regular users. Facebook and Twitter were born on the open web, in a web browser, pre-iPhone. So each made URLs and linking out a core part of their platforms. But apps born on mobile have moved in the other direction. Want to link out on Instagram? Buy an ad or put it in your bio.1 Want to link out on Snapchat? Make a revenue-sharing deal with Snap to put your stories in Discover, formatted exactly as Snapchat tells you to. Want to link out on TikTok? Best of luck.

As feeds have gotten more algorithmic and more opaque in design; as developers’ interest in sending traffic and letting you leave the app wanes; as platforms decide news is more of a pain in the ass to be managed than a useful part of their product — publishers have generally been on the losing end of change.

Throughout that time, Twitter was an exception of sorts. Its shifts away from newsiness were mostly small and confined. And who knows, maybe fleets will prove to be a small shift too; maybe some unknown Washington Post staffer will become the “King of Fleets” for his witty yet transient representation of the brand. But on net, this is the most news-friendly social media platform shifting toward the kind of content the news isn’t that great at producing. That’s probably good for Twitter and probably good for most Twitter users. But I don’t think it’s likely to be good for journalism.

  1. Ironically, it’s a feature that it later added to Stories — the ability to swipe to go to a URL — that has probably been the most beneficial thing Instagram has ever done for publishers. Fleets on Twitter will be able to include a URL too, but in Twitter’s case, that’s a lateral move, not an improvement. []
POSTED     March 4, 2020, 2:51 p.m.
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