Twitter Lists Are Not About Discovery

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

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

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?

7 thoughts on “Twitter Lists Are Not About Discovery

  1. I completely agree and wrote as much myself.

    However, you’ve gone a (smart) step further in theorizing that the competitive nature of lists and inability to refine lists is something Twitter actively sought to aid in viral growth and to foster the developer community.

    I think you’re right (particularly on the latter) but I wonder how long this type of burn and churn strategy is going to pay off.

    I think the Followers game jumped the shark and users were beginning to tire of it. So, perhaps Lists re-energizes it? But … it seems so similar to the Followers dilemma that the lifespan of attention could be a lot less this time around.


  2. AJ,

    Not sure how I missed your post, and I agree on your “people are multifaceted” idea. Regarding the followers game, it will continue to be played just by different people. Followers and lists do give an idea of how many people have “found” you but it is a fairly simplistic metric, not an “influence” metric.

    Lists can really help new users in quickly following a bunch of people instead of the traditional organic growth. This is a big thing for Twitter now that it is mainstream. Just think how easy it now is for someone to add 1000 subscriptions using 5 to 10 lists instead of find each person and subscribing.


  3. Rob,

    No worries. I’ve been a bit under the radar lately and have been heads down at work. Just coming up for air really.

    Agreed on the fact that Followers or Listed won’t convey influence. I think it is a fairly good metric for reach – which fits nicely with Twitter since I believe it’s really power is as a marketing tool. It’s the worlds biggest megaphone.

    See conversation thread:

    You’re right about it being easy to subscribe to a few lists and quickly get the hose of data. I’m just not sure people really want that hose of data or know what to do with it.

    I’m on a respected list in my industry and I’m flattered to be on it. Yet, when you look at the content from that list … it’s chaotic. So, if I were a newbie and subscribed to such a list, would it be a good thing or a bad thing.

    I just don’t know.


  4. As soon as I read “Maybe I am getting crankier as I age, but I call it bullshit” I knew this was my kind of article. As an old grumpy fart myself I regard a lot of the new social media as BS. It’s why I don’t like Facebook or use StumbleUpon or Digg. Those places are just fads, as far as I’m concerned, and I tired of them almost immediately.

    I believe in real relationships with real people. Naturally you can’t have too many deep and meaningful relationships with people online, but with a little effort you can easily interact beyond “Hi, love your site!”


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