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Twitter has capped off a busy week of proposed enhancements, a machine learning acquisition, and executive announcements with big changes to the way people follow events using its service.
A major new feature, dubbed Project Lighting, will group together tweets, photos and videos related to whatever's happening in the moment. The move could make Twitter more useful for tracking current events at a time when its user growth is sagging.
The social platform has dabbled in the area of events before, but the new initiative should make it much easier to find content related to scheduled events like the Grammys or major news events such as an earthquake.
There'll be a new button on Twitter's mobile app that takes users to a page listing various events happening at that moment. Selecting one will take the user to a page of tweets, videos and photos related to that event. The content will be curated by Twitter staff, and users will be able to swipe through full-screen photos and videos.
Project Lightning will also be a way to engage people who aren't logged into Twitter. They'll be able to view the events on Twitter's website and in its app, and other websites will be able to embed the content.
The news was reported Thursday by BuzzFeed, which said the feature will launch later this year. Mike Davidson, VP of design at Twitter, called the feature "one of the sharpest things we've ever designed."
CEO Dick Costolo referred to it as "a complete system for content curation and distribution on and off Twitter."
A team of editors with newsroom backgrounds will use data tools to understand emerging trends and locate the best content from Twitter, the report said. They'll select what they think are the best tweets for each event, and each tweet, picture or video will fill the screen of the phone and include video from Twitter's Vine and Periscope apps.
Earlier this week, Twitter also revealed it will now host videos that play automatically in users' feeds.
Advertisers' videos and those uploaded to Twitter natively, for example through its new video recording tool, will play automatically on the company's desktop site and in its iOS app, with Android functionality coming soon, the company said Tuesday. The changes also apply to videos recorded with Twitter's Vine app, and GIFs.
Autoplaying videos, though possibly annoying, will help Twitter compete against Facebook, which started placing autoplaying videos, including those from advertisers, in users' feeds in 2013. Twitter makes the bulk of its money through advertising, and more Internet companies are looking to siphon video advertising dollars away from traditional TV.
On Twitter, the videos will start playing without sound unless they're tapped on. Twitter users who don't want autoplaying videos can change their settings to revert to the click-to-play format. Users can also change their settings so videos only play automatically when they're connected to Wi-Fi.
Users will not see auto-playing videos if they have a low bandwidth connection on their device, Twitter said.
Twitter began testing auto-playing videos earlier this year and will use the same amount of viewing time as Facebook to define a video "view": three seconds.
In a further indication of its step away from its 140-character heritage, Twitter also revealed it is removing the 140-character limit in direct messages on the platform. In a developer post, the company said the extended direct messaging capability will also be available from July and suggested a number of actions for. Tweets remain at the 140-character limit.
Outside the existing platform, Twitter also made an acquisition this week, purchasing Whetlab to bolster its in-house machine learning efforts. The US-based startup makes it easier for companies to use machine learning tools using technology developed by researchers at harvard, Toronto and Sherbrooke universities.
As part of the acquisition, announced Wednesday, Twitter will shut down Whetlab's beta service on July 15, and will no longer accept sign-ups for the product. Current users will be able to export their data from Whetlabs's website in either tab-separated format or JSON.
It's not exactly clear how Twitter plans to use Whetlab's technology to enhance its existing machine learning plans. However, the startup's tool seems useful for any company implementing machine learning techniques. The technology takes in information about the problem a user wants to solve with machine learning. It then gives the user a series of suggestions to help them optimise a machine learning model to solve the problem.
Users don't have to send Whetlab their data, nor do they need to use a special machine learning toolkit, according to the company's product page. "You can run your code on your own private machines at whatever scale you want. What we do is help you use those resources optimally by telling you what you should try next," the page reads.
The acquisition makes sense for Twitter, which is trying to offer users more customized experiences to improve adoption of its microblogging service. Machine learning is likely critical to those initiatives, and acquiring technology that makes the application of machine learning technology easier could benefit Twitter's in-house development process.
The slew of announcements come as the company prepares for the impending departure of Costolo on 1 July. Twitter co-founder and chairman, Jack Dorsey, will be taking over as interim CEO while the company looks for a new chief executive, the company announced Thursday.
Dorsey, however, remains CEO of Square, the payments company he co-founded in 2009. Costolo also retains his position on Twitter's board of directors.
The company has faced rising pressure to increase its value to users and shareholders, which has been a source of frustration and disappointment for many investors who have been calling for Costolo's head for the better part of a year. The firm has yet to post a profit since its initial public offering in 2013. Furthermore, the company's revenue growth has slowed over the past few quarters, and its first quarter revenue came in below analyst expectations.
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