SAN FRANCISCO – First, Snapchat did it. Then Instagram and Facebook stepped in. Now Twitter is also participating.
On Tuesday, Twitter announced it was rolling out a feature called Fleets that would allow users to post short-lived photos or text that would automatically disappear after 24 hours. Fleets, a name referring to the “fleeting” nature of a thought or phrase, will be available to all iPhone and Android users worldwide in the coming days, according to the company.
Twitter said its main service, Global Town Square, which people like President Trump use to convey their thoughts to supporters, continues to be the marquee. However, the company realized that many users simply lurked on the platform and rarely posted. Fleets could make it easier for people to communicate without worrying about scrutinizing their posts.
"We have learned that some people are more comfortable with this ephemeral format when they join conversations on Twitter. So what they say only lives for a moment," said Joshua Harris, a design director for Twitter. "We can create a space with less pressure where people can express themselves in ways that feel a bit safer."
Twitter's move is part of a larger shift from social media companies to more private and temporary modes of sharing. Because public sharing on social media has spread toxic content and misinformation, many people have tried to minimize their digital footprints and communicate in more intimate groups.
Short-lived sharing was driven by Snapchat. Evan Spiegel, executive director of Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, said he noticed that young people wanted to keep their photos and messages private and temporary when he started his company in 2011. Snapchat's Stories feature, which sends someone's posts to their followers before disappearing 24 hours later, has become hugely popular.
Snapchat's competitors have taken note of this. Facebook and its family of apps, including the photo-sharing website Instagram and the WhatsApp messaging app, have replicated this feature in recent years. Others, like LinkedIn and Pinterest, have also followed.
Twitter has delayed the trend, also due to the public nature of its platform. It's also harder to promote short-lived posts than more permanent content, another hurdle in building the product.
In tests of fleets in a handful of countries outside the US, users recently took an interest in the new feature, according to executives at Twitter. "Those new to Twitter found that fleets are an easier way to share their thoughts," Harris said.
Smaller technology companies have also been working on innovative alternative forms of communication in recent years. Discord, a popular communications start-up among gamers and others, popularized group chat rooms that use video, voice, or text chat. Clubhouse, another start-up, has advanced an all-audio approach to a short-lived social chat room.
Twitter said it was also experimenting with forms of audio communication between users. One of these products, called Spaces, looks and acts similarly to Clubhouse. Small groups of people can speak privately without permanently recording the conversation. Spaces is still in its infancy, the company announced.
In moving to more private communications, Twitter needs to strike a balance between monitoring and limiting abusive content with the privacy of its users. It is usually difficult for social media services to root out toxic posts and falsehoods when people are involved in more intimate conversations and not posting public posts.
Twitter said it offered more tools for users to report harmful or abusive content, among other things.
"We're doing a lot behind the scenes, expanding our rules and trying to prevent abuse and harassment before it happens," said Christine Su, product manager at Twitter. More than half of all tweets that break the rules are removed before they are reported to the company, she said.