Today, Twitter introduced a new homepage designed to make the service useful to those who don’t yet have a Twitter account. It’s an attempt to bypass the awkward acclimation period for new users by introducing them to curated content streams. It also manages to obscure what makes Twitter great in the first place.
Whereas previously users without an account would be greeted with only a sign-in or sign-up option at Twitter.com, starting today they’ll find a healthy handful of feeds organized around popular topics and personalities. Celebrity Chefs & Personalities, Country Artists, Tech Blogs and Reporters (sure!), and over a dozen other suggested categories get prime homepage real estate, while more granular categories await attention in a sidebar. There are 58 groupings to choose from in all, a content smorgasbord that should in theory provide a little something for every interest.
Clicking on any one of them leads you to a traditional Twitter stream filled with contributions from relevant accounts. Importantly, you’re not greeted with a firehose, which would overwhelm even the most enthusiastic new microblogger. Instead, Twitter filters in select tweets based on what appears to be a combination of popularity and visual appeal. A search bar also gets prominent real estate at the top of the page, both at Twitter.com and within the curated streams.
It’s nice! The layout’s clean and clear, and communicates that you don’t need to actually tweet to enjoy Twitter’s benefits. And the feeds centered around generalized topics, like Celebrity News or Cute Animals, are everything you would want Twitter to be; timely, fast, germane.
The organizing principle for the majority of suggested streams, though, seems to be personality-driven. NBA Players instead of NBA. Country Artists, not Country music. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Tweets from famous people are an effective way to confirm that those famous people (and their PR teams) do, in fact, use the internet. But they don’t make for a particularly enjoyable, or more importantly, cohesive, experience. When I tried it a few minutes ago, clicking on the Celebrity Chefs lists yields a few links to recipes, sure, but also a missive about women’s wrestling and the new Duck Dynasty musical. Or, more specifically, #DucksMusical, which to an uninitiated Twitter sampler (and maybe everyone) means nothing.
Because here’s the thing: going to a stream filled with tweets by celebrity chefs or NBA players doesn’t mean you’re going to read a lot about cooking or basketball, even though that’s why you presumably went there to begin with. NBA players and chefs—the ones who are enjoyable on Twitter, anyway—tweet about all kinds of things. Likewise journalists, likewise reality TV stars. Any group of individuals will create a scrambled and hard-to-parse streaming experience, precisely because they’re individuals.
And this is what makes Twitter’s learning curve so steep, but worthwhile. That human beings for the most part tweet like they’re human beings, not content-bots, is part of what makes the service great. There’s a little bit of voyeuristic glee in seeing Kristen Bell talk allergies, or knowing that Susan Sarandon was hanging out with Eddie Vedder. Yet it’s also this endless cascade of disconnected ideas and half-conversations that make Twitter hard to dive into. Combined with Twitter’s unique lexicon and etiquette—hashtags and at replies are just the start (subtweeting! manual retweets!)—they make for an alienating experience, regardless of the organizing principle.
The broader categories on Twitter’s new homepage are generally more successful than these personality-driven lists, but fall short in the opposite direction. Video Games and Gamers, for instance, follows mostly brand accounts like Halo and Nintendo of America. It reads more like a marketing survey than a modern day salon.
The disconnect is that Twitter opted to present the focus of conversation rather than the conversations themselves. Following a baseball team on Twitter is fine, but arguing about starting rotations or sharing absurd GIFs with fellow fans is where the real fun begins. Twitter’s homepage presents it as a ticker-tape of celebrities and brands, instead of what it really is: A chance to tear that tape into confetti and throw a snark parade.
The two types of feeds you’re left with, then, are either jarring or bland; it’s a group of individuals who happen to share the same (high-profile, celebrity-status) jobs but few consistent interests, or the interests themselves bled of all personality. Neither of those visions of Twitter keeps people coming back.
The answer, presumably, would be to offer streams based on keywords or subject that include quality tweets no matter who they come from. Eventually, the homepage could evolve to focus on events and topics rather than personalities and brands, a low-key, tightly curated evolution of the hashtag for people who don’t know what one is. You can imagine an Oscars stream on Oscars night being useful and fun for people who have no intention of joining the 140 character fray themselves.
Ultimately, any welcome mat is better than the barren sign-in hinterlands that came before this new homepage design. Hopefully someday it’ll help highlight Twitter’s strengths, not talk around them.