Twitter lists have been available now for a short while and the blogosphere has been talking about them constantly. We have heard the reasoning behind much of it, like aiding user discovery and having users define their own suggested users list. Maybe I am getting crankier as I age, but I call bullshit. This has nothing to do with discovery and everything to do with mass following, but first let’s look at what lists give you.
Private lists make sense for one particular reason, ease of use. When you start following more than 100 people, being able to track the conversations becomes unwieldy. Lists give you the ability to segment or categorize users into manageable chunks. Obviously, these are beneficial because each of the third party Twitter client have implemented them.
Previously, the problem with lists created within your Twitter client have not been very portable. TweetDeck implemented a server based synchronization process which helped a lot of people, but that was still within the world of TweetDeck. The other benefit of Twitter’s new private lists is the portability you will get. Once TweetDeck, Seesmic and others implement Twitter list support, creating lists and retrieving that list from another PC or Twitter client will be much simpler.
Public lists are supposed to be useful for discovery. The idea is that if Louis Gray or Robert Scoble creates a list of tech bloggers, then maybe you will discover some new Twitter users because if they listen to those people you should too. Generally speaking, this is where discovery falls down. Discovery is about finding people you normally would not find, not people that are likely in Scoble’s favorite bloggers list. Nothing against Robert or Louis, but they converse with different circles than most people. They have almost every A-list web celebrities ear when they want to talk. The real question is how to find those people that are on the D-list or Z-list? That does not occur through lists, but it requires things more like topic-based or similarity-based discovery. If you are looking for some popular entrepreneurs or innovators, Robert Scoble does have some interesting lists though.
The other problem with public lists is the number of lists people get included on. Congratulations folks, we now have another metric of how popular the A-list is. Shortly, we will see new “influencer” lists based on how many lists people are included on. Given that I am on a context kick lately, it was a major concern for me. I know that people like Ashton Kutcher will be on a bunch of lists, and he will be seen as a big influencer on Twitter. The question is not how many lists is he on, but who is following him? People following him are likely into pop culture and entertainment. If you want to influence those demographics, then target Ashton, otherwise his huge following may prove useless.
Why Have Public Lists?
Chris Brogan has an interesting post on Twitter lists, especially because he talks about being left out of lists. It is interesting because he will be on a lot of lists. He reiterates the elitism concern and how it feels to be on the other side. However, I think the problem is not elitism as much as popularity. Many of the people on a lot of lists are already very popular, so we could think of the number of lists a person is on as their popularity metric.
So, why have public lists at all? Many people tend to disagree with how Twitter has been built and how features have been added. However, one thing people are ignoring is that the Twitter team knows how to get more people using the service. This is all about viral growth. Think of the benefits of having someone find a list of tech bloggers from Louis Gray that has 200 people. If I decide to follow that list, I have just added 200 people to my subscriptions. By doing so, I have added a large batch of people without really cluttering my current user experience. By adding that many people quickly, I can quickly mention the list to someone and the network distribution effects begin.
Another interesting note about lists is the difficulty in creating a decent sized list. Twitter added the basic feature of a list, and made it fairly hard to really curate the list. However, they have a solid API, so they have effectively told the third party Twitter clients to create a good list management tool. This is an interesting move as it shows immense faith in the developer ecosystem, something that has been questioned in the past few months. This will definitely give a boost to the egos of developers and ensure that Twitter is still a popular development platform.
These two points are hugely important for Twitter, continuing viral growth and a thriving developer community. What more could a startup want? Do you think they had other reasons for adding lists the way they did?