Twitter plans to get up close and personal, surfacing content for your special interests

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In Twitter’s Q3 earnings call today, executives dodged a question from an analyst about whether the company could give details about any “big, revolutionary” product changes that might move the needle on Twitter’s sluggish growth. But they did open the curtains on what might be one of the “hundreds of small changes” it’s planning in coming months. The company is working on ways of making the Timeline, (currently) the heart of Twitter, into a more personal experience, with special-interest views around, say, your favorite sports teams, or the political party you support, as well as more conversational Tweets from your social graph.

In the call today, Twitter CFO Anthony Noto — who can be counted on to make strategic reveals of what Twitter is thinking about next in these calls — said that Twitter is working on something that he referred to as an “Event Timeline” that “brings the conversation together” around a specific moment or occasion.

These could, for example, run alongside a sporting event that Twitter is streaming, or to accompany something happening off the network. So, if an event in question is a football game, the idea would be to coalesce tweets from other fans of your team, or “expert” commentators.

Another alternative to tailor what you see, Noto added, would be to bring together tweets “from your graph” of people you follow.

“We’ve just scratched the surface for what we can do here,” Noto said.

He also described Twitter’s ideas for how an interface might look for these more personalized Timelines: they could come in the form of tabs alongside your regular Timeline: “We can provide a tab for Patriots or Chiefs fans, or just for Republicans or Democrats.”

To develop these personalized views, Twitter is tapping into some of the machine learning investments it has been making, said CEO Jack Dorsey. This will be a fundamental shift. “In the past, we were biased toward helping users find individuals rather than topics and interests,” Dorsey said. “We can do better there.”

If you based tweets around special interests rather than suggestions of people to follow, it essentially removes the need to figure out who to follow on the platform, which has been one of the gating factors to growing Twitter, and introducing it to new users. It could create a completely different way of discovering content on the platform, while at the same time tapping into some of the topic-based use you already see around existing features like hashtags.

Machine learning, Dorsey also said on the call, is being used to improve notifications and to “open up Twitter” to more users.

Although the machine learning element is new, customized Timelines is not an entirely novel idea on Twitter. The company actually introduced a feature called Custom Timelines back in 2013 — which let people create links to curated lists of Tweets around specific events, à la Storify.

I can’t recall the last time (if ever) that I clicked on a Custom Timeline, but this does indicate one potential starting point for how this might look and act, and also how Twitter or an event holder might be able to control these personalized Tweets.

The concept of more personalized Timelines seems like an obvious addition for a platform that can feel very noisy and aimless at times.

Twitter earlier this year already took its first steps into manipulating what users see first when they look at the app when it introduced a new view, where Twitter provided short lists of tweets you might have missed from earlier, above the usual time-based view of all the tweets from people you follow. These, too, are surfaced by machine learning algorithms that surface notable tweets based on how you already use Twitter and people you follow.

Power users of Twitter, using lists and clients like TweetDeck, have long been curators of content on the platform. Introducing more tabs into the basic Twitter experience could broaden out this kind of use.

And broadening out some of the most popular uses of Twitter while taking away some of the wonkier elements — say by introducing hashtag behavior through tabs but without hashtags — also taps into another theme at the company. Just yesterday, we noticed that it was testing removing the “@reply” tags from replies that have always eaten into its 140-character limit. (And Twitter has been eyeing ways of removing these features for a while, it seems.)

Personalized Timelines could be used for another purpose on the platform: Twitter today is facing a lot of scrutiny over how it handles harassment, or mishandles it, as the case may be. It even allegedly lost not one but two acquisition deals over the issue.

CEO Jack Dorsey noted in his investor letter today that it is planning “meaningful updates” to its safety policies next month, and while it did not go into further detail about what those might be, you could see how Twitter could potentially implement more personalized Timelines here, too: It may not be able to remove all bad actors’ voices, but it could make it a lot harder for them to be heard.