With a flurry of new features unveiled this afternoon, Twitter appears to be aiming more than ever at mimicking some of the most visual elements of Instagram and Facebook.
The most interesting new feature is one that adds a palette of "top" photos and videos to search results. So, for example, if you search for "sunrise," you see a group of photos above the resulting column of tweets, as well as a row of video thumbnails off to the side.
Clearly, the idea here is that Twitter wants users to see more information than ever before, and far more than just the 140 characters of actual tweets. It's an acknowledgement by Twitter that, more than ever, the richest communications are visual, something that netted Instagram a high nine-figure payday (its acquisition by Facebook) and helps make Facebook so attractive to so many people. While a 140-character tweet can contain a wealth of information -- a new thought, a URL, a retweet -- Twitter is nodding to the fact that when someone is searching for something specific, there's a lot of value in giving them an instant visual treat, even one that dominates the screen.
However, while Twitter indicates that the new features should work regardless of the search term, my quick experiments showed that they produce inconsistent results, with some terms generating the desired visual results, while others don't. In an e-mail, Twitter said the new features should be fully rolled out in its mobile apps, but I couldn't distinguish between the results, whether they were on Web or mobile. That seems supported by a tweet from the company this afternoon that suggests, "Some searches to try if you want to see photos above results: sfgiants and sunset. People LOVE sunset photos." But people also love pictures of cats and dogs, so it's odd that the system is clearly not ready to feature tweets with photos related to Felix and Fido.
Picture preview and other new features
One of the most interesting of the other new features Twitter rolled out today is an instant photo preview on mobile devices. Previously, if a tweet had an associated photo, iPhone and Android users could see a large version of it by tapping on the tweet in their stream. Now however, users should be able to see the larger preview version of the photo directly in their feed. However, I also found this feature to be inconsistent this afternoon.
Another new feature Twitter unveiled today is headlines. Do a search, and in some cases you'll get a top headline above the resulting column of tweets.
And Twitter also unveiled the first mobile version of "cards," a feature previously available only in full Web browsers that embedded rich content like headlines and photos. Now mobile users will also be able to see such information in their tweet streams.
Finally, earlier today, in a seemingly unrelated announcement, Twitter also rolled out a new feature that lets users e-mail tweets.