A response to “The End of Twitter”

I really enjoy and usually agree with much of what Joshua Topolsky has to say about the world of tech and media but felt compelled to respond to his New Yorker article “The End of Twitter”

I wanted to annotate it with Genius but for whatever reason, wasn’t able to, so I’ll post sections I want to respond to here:

It wasn’t that long ago that I — and many other people I know — would have argued that Twitter was more than just another social network.

I’d argue it still is, there’s not really a strong argument here about what’s changed that would make that not the case. The article seems to focus on the financial and organization issues the company has had but not the service itself. Which, for someone like me, a self-admitted power user, who would normally scoff at major changes, hasn’t found any changes so drastic as to scare me away. The same utility that attracted me remains.

A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with — a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized

This contradicts the previous paragraph. (you’ll have to go and read it, I’m not going to copy and paste the whole article) Just a moment ago you were fine with the rawness of the feed but suddenly you’re not. I don’t know of any social media platform currently that plays an editorial role in choosing what’s accurate and what is not.

Facebook has surpassed the company by orders of magnitude, but it’s hardly Twitter’s only foe. Instagram, WhatsApp, and even WeChat all now have more individual users than Twitter does. Snapchat has almost caught Twitter, too.

You can’t on one hand complain about noise, a by-product of growth, and simultaneously cite a lack of growth. As a user, it doesn’t matter to me if Twitter grows to the size of Facebook, since at the current size it provides a tremendous utility. Were it to grow, I would simply want to continue to manage feeds my way, even if new users get a custom experience tailored by Twitter based on their behavior. It’s not difficult to offer both and I actually believe, in words and deeds, this is Twitter’s opinion as well.

In Facebook’s case, the company has demonstrated its mastery of product focus and long-term commitment to user experience.

Not exactly. Facebook Paper was a huge flop, they’ve had to reverse major changes to the NewsFeed several times, and in fact almost all internal products developed haven’t taken off. They’ve mainly innovated, product-wise, by acquisition, not by internal development.

If users get abusive on Facebook, they’re dealt with.

This isn’t backed up by any evidence. I would cite users who don’t agree with this but that too would be anecdotal. Since I am not the author of this piece, I think it’s incumbent for the author to actually back up his thesis that Facebook is a utopia for users looking for a harassment-free experience.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s stock has lost about fifty per cent of its value over the past three months.

I’m not sure Wall Street is the best measurement of if a service is useful or not. Is Twitter currently being run as a business that makes Wall Street happy? Obviously not, but again, I don’ think that’s an indication that people like the service or not.

…the service could run for another four hundred and twelve years with current losses.)

Which contradicts the title of this article, which is: The End of Twitter.

it’s not difficult to see a future in which Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or even a newcomer like Peach (yes, I am citing Peach) focus enough on real-time news that they obviate the need for Twitter’s narrow, noisy, and oft-changing ideas about social interaction.

It is, actually difficult to see, since none of these services were developed with the intention of being Twitter. Their users use those services because they’re offering something else that isn’t Twitter. Citing Peach seems like troll-bait, so I’ll just ignore that one.

If Facebook wanted a Twitter-replacement stand-alone app, they would have done it by now. I don’t think they’re interested in being in that business, for whatever reason. Perhaps the same reason they dumped Parse, it distracts from their main focus. (I wrote Fabric instead of Parse here originally, thanks for the heads up, Jana!)

This is especially notable to all of us in the world of media, the people who fill these services with highly valuable and hotly traded “content,” such as the piece you’re currently reading. Social media is a scale game or a product game, and Twitter is failing at both.

Is there any evidence to back up that media companies aren’t still publishing to Twitter at the same pace? I certainly don’t see individual journalists using Twitter less, in fact seems quite the opposite. It still is the #1 way I get news and before anywhere else.

Rumors currently swirl (and have been all but confirmed by Dorsey) that the service, best known and best loved for its tight hundred-and-forty-character limit — an economy that often forces clarity — will begin allowing ten-thousand-character Tweets with multiple images or video content.

But the experience will still start with a 140-character message, so while Twitter will allow you to go deeper, you’re still forced to provide what makes Twitter special, a short message that travels wide and can be quickly received.

That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are hundreds of millions of dedicated users (I count myself among them) who still see tremendous utility in the service.

This goes back to my earlier argument. I don’t care if Twitter is a multi-billion dollar company, I just want Twitter to be what it has always been for me. Hundreds of millions of users is a big deal, it doesn’t need to be the size of Facebook to be a sustainable business, it can be a great, but smaller business that provides the tremendous utility it already offers.

The company just needs to find the right way to show the power of those connections to a bigger audience, and the value of that audience to advertisers and partners. Not a simple task, but for Twitter an unavoidable one.

It doesn’t have to, but it wants to, but ultimately it could still be a very successful smaller business for a highly engaged audience. If Josh’s thesis would have been focused on the business, I would have a hard time disagreeing with him. The results (at least in the short term) look bleak, but I don’t agree that Twitter today is any less useful, or essential, than it ever was. I am still a hardcore user and fan.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Circa was an atom in the universe of Semantic Web and Structured Journalism. I’d like to think we created a Big Bang, which resulted in apps like NYT NowWSJ’s “What’s News”Yahoo’s News Digest and countless others. However, we didn’t create the concept, we just built upon it and hopefully took it further than it had been executed, or conceptualized before.

We were preceded by folks like Chris and Laura Amico at Homicide Watch and the LA Times Homicide ReportReg Chua at Reuters has been at this for years, Bill Adair of Politifact, journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray, and Zach Seward at Quartz, whose earlier work at WSJ preceded ours. We took cues from Zach’s work at Quartz as well. Adrian Holovaty was talking about this as far back as 2006!

Where I think Circa took a step forward from Homicide Watch and Politifact and others — was the idea that we could add structure to ANY story. Not just those that were in their wheelhouse (homicides, political statements). It was the idea that we could take ANY story and add a structured element to it — even if the only structure was “this item read, this item unread.”

Circa wasn’t and isn’t arrogant enough to think we came up with all the concepts we built upon, we integrated some and invented others. The important thing is that we acknowledge those who came before us and their work that helped us move the ball further down the field.

I do think there are a few concepts that Circa created and executed upon that were truly “inventions” in the sense we came up with new concepts and executed on them, when others had not before. If you think I’m wrong, I’d be happy to listen but here goes. Among them:

Following the long arc of a story through atomic elements

The concept of atomizing news was not something Circa invented but the idea of using those atoms, apply metadata to them and allowing a reader to follow discrete stories which would only push to you the atomic units you had not already read had not and has since not been done before. You could follow the evolution of stories that went on for days, weeks, months and even years without ever re-reading anything you already knew. If you forgot the background information, you could still scroll back up or down and read the story as if you were coming to it fresh. We satisfied both new readers and longtime followers at the same time.

It’s such a great concept that the New York Times recently thought of it too!

The Particles approach suggests that we need to identify the evergreen, reusable pieces of information at the time of creation, so that they can be reused in new contexts. It means that news organizations are not just creating the “first draft of history”, but are synthesizing the second draft at the same time, becoming a resource for knowledge and civic understanding in new and powerful ways.

Reusable, completely customizable atomic story elements

The first point is in service of the story. This concept is in service of being able to present discrete elements of the story anywhere.

This is the basis of what is now becoming a big deal in publishing. Facebook’s Instant Articles and others are ushering in a way of taking existing stories and serving them up in more lightweight formats for specific usage. Intially the application is smartphones, but soon likely wearables and others.

Circa built everything that comprised an article in a way that it wasn’t a slave to the container you were consuming it in. This actually goes several steps further than what Instant Articles and others are doing (as far as I can tell) and allowed us to easily port and manipulate very granual story elements into limitless destinations.

Oh look, the New York Times just thought of that too!

Finally, the recent proliferation of new devices and platforms for media consumption creates new pressures for news organizations to programmatically identify the pieces of information within an article. Consider every new platform and product to which news organizations currently publish their content, and how each of those outputs requires a different format and presentation.

A publishing platform that made our team more efficient

Circa’s staff writers and editors used a completely homegrown CMS called KPS (knowledge publishing system) and were in the process of building its next generation platform, which was revolutionary. I hope we might be able to reveal all the elements of that system someday, but that decision is no longer in my hands. I can tell you that KPS allowed us to easily reuse, rearrange and add metadata to discrete atomic elements of the stories we built and allowed us to publish faster and more accurately than many of our better resourced peers.

But if Particles were treated as their own first-class elements that were encoded, tagged, and embeddable, contextual information would be easy for a journalist to find. All kinds of newsroom tools could be built to allow journalists to leverage the rich body of previous reporting to make their jobs easier and more efficient.

Sounds familiar.

I think what the New York Times is conceptualizing is exciting and interesting but it’s also something that we and others have discussed and executed on already. It would be great if that was simply acknowledged.

This concept builds on ideas that have been discussed under the rubric of the Semantic Web for quite a while

…and I don’t think that is quite sufficient, as far as an acknowledgement.

The app world needs to be wild and free like the web

We reached an inflection point long ago. The vast majority of users prefer apps over mobile web as they continue to prefer mobile over desktop in increasing numbers.

The problem is that the folks who create what we consume don’t have the same ability to create and iterate with the same flexibility and ease when building and tweaking apps as we do building and tweaking web experiences.

There needs to be some quality control to make sure apps aren’t doing malicious things, like secretly take over your microphone or grab your contact list, but if we can check all those boxes, there ought to be a better process in place to get updates out to market much faster.

We’re going to spend more and more time away from the web and more and more on our phones and in apps, and if that’s the case we should be able to cultivate the same creativity, the same messiness, the interconnectivity and immediacy that the web provided.

The web is not dead and it will not die but we’re beyond the point of wondering if we live in an app-driven world. We’re there and we’ve been there for some time now.

The question now is how do we make that world as wonderful as the web is?

Transparency and Process Journalism

There’s two schools of thought when it comes to publishing news.

There’s the traditional approach, where you take your time and make sure you have multiple named sources you’re personally and directly in contact with. That is, in my mind, the best possible way to ensure you’re getting your facts straight.

The second school relies on several factors:

  1. Direct single sourcing (named official at Dept of Defense told me)
  2. Reliance on third party sources (New York Times reported through (named source)
  3. Reliance on third party unnamed source (New York Times reported through senior government official.

We see a lot more of the second school these days than the personally acquired source and that leads to less reliable reporting. Worse yet, there’s often no accountability or a documentation how the story evolved over time as better sources emerged.

The traditional method of reporting has become less common as new media outlets rely on aggregation of sources. Even traditional reporting relies on a combination of both personally acquired sources and a mix of aggregated reports.

What’s usually lacking from either of these methods is a way for the reporter to provide to the reader the ability to understand how the story evolved. An “Editor’s Note” that appears at the top or bottom of the post seems insufficient. Something like NewsDiffs can be useful but doesn’t plug directly into the existing website (if it could, that might be a good solution.)

What would be ideal is a way for the reader to turn on the corrections/changes made by clicking a link at the top of the post that turns the post into a “track changes” mode, which shows the updates made over time. You might even allow the reader to see what the story looked like on a particular day. In addition, it would be useful to simply give the reader the ability to follow the story and be alerted each time it gets changed or corrected. We did exactly that with Circa, but it would be even better to see it built into existing media properties.

This transparency builds greater trust between the reader and the publisher. It also reclaims something that is becoming lost when readers are led to many places through social media rather than relying on a single publication: loyalty. If I am given the ability to track a story over time and understand I’ll be told if something changes or is corrected, I’m more likely to go back to that same source which I’ve subscribed to.

It’s no longer sufficient to think you can change a story and think nobody will notice, you might as well be upfront with readers as the story evolves and allow them to stay connected to those changes as they happen. The alternative is hope nobody will notice only to have others explain how you’ve made those changes and tried to act like nothing happened, which serves to do nothing but erode credibility and trust in the publication.

Why I love ESPN’s redesign

ESPN was like Han Solo, dipped in design carbonite for years, but today, easily one of the best designed websites around.

What I love:

  • Clean card based design, easily transfers to mobile.
  • Puts my teams first.
  • First thing on the nav directs me to what’s going on right now.
  • The NOW ticker gives rich, but quick hits and makes generous use of tweets and other immediate social media.

Some dislikes:

  • Article page sidebar is too wide, and should be collapsable (maybe upon scroll.
  • Nav and scores up top become a bit too much on article pages, should collapse upon scroll.

Dear Circa

I’ve been flooded with messages of support since we shut down. I asked permission to share these messages from the folks who sent them. I have been so amazed and humbled by how much people really had emotionally invested in Circa. It makes me feel really proud  of what we were able to build and the impact we have now created in the industry.

Here’s a sample of some of the letters I’ve received…


To Anthony and my distant friends at Circa News—

It is with great sadness that I started my morning off with the Farewell, from Circa headliner. I won’t torture you by yearning for the what-ifs and the if-onlys; still, I had to write you because I feel oddly close to the team that for so long now has brought me my daily news brief. Your idea was brilliant and you changed the market—there is no denying that. In today’s America we find ourselves at odds with the current event paradox. That is, technology, social movements, crowd-sourced collaboration and the freedom of press make accessing real, unbiased, ugly-truthed frontline news more possible than ever; yet, we amass a naive population that becomes disgruntled and misguided by ‘news’ organizations that are controlled by their advertisers so much so that what becomes the top story on every major news source is more often than not a ‘fluff’ to redirect attention from the real stories and make an aggregate audience fell all warm and fuzzy inside. But you already know this. Continue reading Dear Circa

Farewell Circa

(click here to skip to the list of Circa employees looking for new opportunities)

Here’s the short Circa version: We tried to do something very different, we took huge risks, we built a product that spawned a whole new category, and we enjoyed every moment of it, at least until the money ran out and that sucked.

Care to know more? By all means, read on:

We got some stuff wrong, but there’s a hell of a lot we got right. There will be a time and place for me to expand on that, today is not that day. I’m delighted to see we’ve inspired many other apps to do part of what we did or attempted to do. It’s great that we’ll see various elements of Circa live on through them.

I want to thank this team:

Arsenio, I am so lucky to have worked with you and have someone so willing to work hand and glove with editorial. That’s a rare thing in our business. You’re a rockstar, I hope we cross paths again. I also loved the chance to work with your amazing team: Tim, Travis, Chris, Michelle, Ashley, AJ, Brian, Darren, Adam, and Frank.

John Maloney, you know how much you did for this team. You are selfless. Without question, you have been a rock and fought the good fight to try to get us over the finish line. I’ll never forget that. I am your brother for life.

Matt, you gave me an amazing opportunity and you’re an incredible product designer. The industry is still trying to catch up with you. I know you’ll continue to do amazing things.

David, our founding editor, who mentored me and taught me the very unique way we do things here at Circa. Without you, I would be nothing. You’re killing it at Al-Jazeera. I am indebted to you for teaching me and giving me the skills to have continued what you created here.

Adrian, Daniel, Greg, Evan, Andrew, Ted, Chad, Lenika, Nicholas, Peter, Abraham, Amelie, Alli, Nallur, Kevin, and Lisa.  Who fought their asses off and have unique skills that few others in our industry can boast of. They’re now free to take those skills out to the world and give your newsroom superpowers.  Startups are hard, they’re not the safe passage for anyone. News is tough enough to then have the unpredictability of startup life tossed in for good measure. I respect and admire these folks for putting their heart and soul into this.

Christine, our incredible designer. Your work speaks for itself. Someone will be very lucky to have you bringing your magic to them soon.

Jessie, our operations rock. Without you, the ship doesn’t sail. Thanks for keeping us on track and making sure the trains run on time.

Finally, I want to thank the majority of our investors, who believed in us enough to write a check. There are some investors making it difficult to get our team paid for services rendered. Be assured I won’t stand by idle if they’re not made whole.

I can vouch for all the people above, but I worked as Editor In Chief and can uniquely speak for the skills of the team I led below. I’m providing short bios but can get into more detail about what I think their strongest skills are. Please do get in touch soon if you want them, there’s actually a lot of demand and I’m happy to see that. I also linked their emails to their names here if you want to reach them directly.

Continue reading Farewell Circa