Twitter Lists: We are informed by those we follow. We are defined by those who follow us.

“The power of Twitter is in the people you follow.”-@nytimes

You’ll find that quote at NYTimes.com/Twitter, where the New York Times has built a page of Twitter lists curated by its editors, its writers and, presumably, the help of its considerable audience.

As this feature has rolled out, I’ve read knee jerk criticism, thoughtful analysis, wild evangelizing and observed “lists of lists” be collected as sites like Listorious and Listatlas.com spring up to rank them.

Tech pundits and, rapidly, news organizations have all created lists that offer apply new taxonomies, imposed human-defined categories onto the roiling real-time tweetstream.

Readers are defined and informed by the diversity of the information sources that they consume. In a user-created Web, we are defined by those who choose to follow us, including any lists or tags that they associate with  our names.

It’s been exciting to watch. And if you’re a reader of David Weinberger, author of “Everything is Miscellaneous,” you might recognize this emergent behavior as a familiar phenomenon. Twitter users are using lists to organize one another into understandable taxonomies. Folksonomies, to use the term coined by Thomas Vander Wal.

Users have some control over which Twitter lists they appear upon. If you block a user, for instance, you can remove yourself from that user’s lists, if for some reason you don’t want to appear on it.

What we can’t control, once we make ourselves public there or elsewhere on the Web, is how others tag or list us.

This goes back to what Weinberger (along with Doc Searls, Rick Levine and Christopher Locke) wrote about in “The Cluetrain Manifesto” ten years ago. “Markets are conversations.”

I suspect that in the weeks ahead, both companies and individuals may find themselves on lists that they perhaps would not wish to define as part of their brand identities.

“I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member”

As I quote Groucho Marx, today, I feel fortunate, for two different reasons.

First, to date, I’ve been included on 176 lists, none of which I’m embarrassed or insulted to be on. You can see all of them at “memberships,” which is a friendly way of describing inclusion.

Thank you. I’m humbled.

Second, most of the lists are being used by an individual user to categorize others for providing particular sort of information.

Overall, I’m most closely associated with technology, journalism, security and media. That’s  a good sign, given my profession! I was glad to see that the account I maintain at work (@ITcompliance) has been added to 33 lists, primarily compliance, information security, cybersecurity and GRC.

I’m talking about the right things in the right places.

Certain lists, however, have meant that many more people reading me than would have otherwise because of the hundreds or thousands of people that have chosen to follow them, due to the influence of their creators.  I’m thinking about lists like these, some of which have gone on to become popular at Listorious.com.

@palafo/linkers

@palafo/newmedia

@kitson/thought-leaders

@jayrosen_nyu/best-mindcasters-i-know

@Scobleizer/tech-pundits

@Scobleizer/my-favstar-fm-list

Thank you, fellas.

Like any other tools, lists will no doubt be used for good and ill. An outstanding article by Megan Farber, “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists” in the Columbia Journalism Review, shows how news organizations can leverage the feature to curate the real-time Web for the online audience.

The lists—which offer a running stream of information, updates, and commentary from the aggregated feeds—represent a vast improvement over the previous means of following breaking news in real time. In place of free-for-all Twitter hashtags—which, valuable as they are in creating an unfiltered channel for communication, are often cluttered with ephemera, re-tweets, and other noise—they give us editorial order. And in place of dubious sources—users who may or may not be who they say they are, and who may or may not be worthy of our trust—the lists instead return to one of the foundational aspects of traditional newsgathering: reliable sources. Lists locate authority in a Twitter feed’s identity—in, as it were, its brand: while authority in hashtagged coverage derives, largely but not entirely, from the twin factors of volume and noise—who tweets the most, who tweets the loudest—authority in list-ed coverage derives from a tweeter’s prior record. Making lists trustworthy in a way that hashtagged coverage simply is not.

Farber goes further in exploring what role lists may play in journalism’s future, as organizations collaborate with both their audience and one another in curating user-generated content. It’s a great piece. Pete Cashmore, of @mashable, has written more about this at CNN in “Twitter lists and real-time journalism.”

Individuals and news organizations alike can create lists as needed. For instance, as the House debates a historic health care bill here in Washington, you can follow the discussion at @Mlsif/healthdebatelive

As Cashmore points out, in the social, “people-centric Web,” we use our friends as a filter. As Paul Gillin observed,  everything that you’ve learned about SEO may be useless in a more social Web. Google’s new Social Search shows how, if we choose, our search results can be populated with content from our circle of friends.

On Twitter, we can now use the lists from trusted friends and news organizations to curate the real-time Web. That makes them useful, immediately.

And after a week full of public grief here in the U.S., that’s good news.

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21 Comments

Filed under blogging, journalism, social bookmarking, social media, technology, Twitter

21 responses to “Twitter Lists: We are informed by those we follow. We are defined by those who follow us.

  1. Your title is misleading, for while I *think* I know what you mean, you may be confusing me.

    Twitter used to be about those you followed and those who followed you. No more. Now, Twitter is also about who is adding you to a list and who else follows that list.

    Throughout the past few hours, for instance, I have unfollowed ~200 Twitter users, but not before adding them to lists. Whether I refollow them is to be determined, but I am still following them..though they will appear in a list stream, not my main stream.

    So, perhaps I’m not confused at all and am using this space to rant that following is not about followers at all, but inclusive of lists. Right?

    • digiphile

      Let me restate that, to be clear: We are informed by those follow. I wrote that thinking that our understanding of the world is by definition bound up in which news sources we read, listen to or watch. In the user-generated Web, that naturally includes one another. If we follow a person or a list, that action is also publicly available as part of our social graph, demonstrating to clear eyes which voices and news sources we may subscribe to. Knowing the reading habits of one another is powerful; just ask the civil libertarians who resist the part of the Patriot Act that applies to libraries

      We are defined by those who follow us. Since lists include titles, there’s now a way for us to “tag” one another on Twitter. Those tags, in aggregate, define a social identity in a way that goes beyond raw follower numbers. Sure, you could look at it as the “new popularity metric” – and many have — but when you page through the more than 11,000 lists than @aplusk are on, you get a sense of how people perceive him that’s more than just “celebrity,” even if that tag is one of the most frequent.

      I think for most, Twitter is still about those you follow and those who follow you, for the simple reason that lists haven’t rolled out to most third-party clients yet. That may change. For now, choosing to follow still means something, even if it’s just being able to DM back and forth. Most of all, Twitter is still what each person makes of it. This post is my two cents on what lists might mean. Others will use the tool in a different way.

      • Great post, Alex. I agree that this is another tool that shapes and defines who are, collectively of course. Sometimes the lists are a bit off, but I think that if you look at all of the lists where one is listed, you can get a pretty good sense for what they share and who they are.

        I am constantly interested in seeing how these are going to be used in the future.

  2. Pretty much everything we are doing goes back to the ClueTrain. Love the Clue.

    Shaun Dakin
    @IsCool
    @EndTheRobocalls
    @PrivacyCampDC

  3. Alex,
    I like your analysis. But it makes me wonder about the life-cycle management of lists. Over time someone might be on a list that is no longer relevant to what they do. For example, someone might be very involved in a current new event (e.g. like your example with Ft. Hood, or others like the attacks in Mumbai) but then over time they move to other “communities” of conversation. They may out-live the relevance on their list. What results is list-stagnation. You and I will be on lists that once were relevant to us, but are no longer. Is that up to us? As cluetrain predicted, in a socially connected world, it’s what others say about you that counts. So if other people put you on a list that no longer does a good job “defining you”, will you insist on being removed? What if the list owner is one of the many drop-offs who leave Twitter after a few days?

    I think lists are pretty cool, but with many things that deal with data and identity, they succeed or fail based on good management policies. Do you think we’ll need a better way to manage these lists?

    • digiphile

      As usual, you ask tough questions, Gil. Given that Lists introduce another vector in social media that brands and individuals will monitor, effective means to manage them will also be needed. Follower management is an area that required a tool for power users of Twitter. Over time, lists may stimulate similar development. Links rot, over time. People change the focus of their coverage or streams, as they change beats, jobs or careers. Managing the quality of lists so that they remain useful to the user and (if the list is followed by many others, like those coming out of the @NYTimes, @Mashable or @WSJ, a larger audience) will now inevitably add a new responsibility for community managers, like @SeamusCondron or @NYT_JenPreston. Over time, as the Fort Hood shooting pass into history, that list will no doubt be retired so that the next breaking event can be covered similarly.

    • Interesting questions, though I’m not convinced that list management will be a key element of their success; I think there are other bigger factors. I’m looking at the lists that Alex is on. Will he one day cease to be a “tech-smart” according to @kasey428? Will he woefully lose his membership rights to @fpaynter/geexandfreex (and don’t even think of asking which he is)? Will something change to make Alex no longer be one of the people @jmproffitt/actuallymet? Of all the lists he’s on, I can see only a handful that might cease to apply in the future, e.g. @bhuwan/yet-to-meet and @ems122/dc-people.

      At this point I think lists are young and not yet well understood (I’ve read only ~1/3 Twitter users actually understand what they are). Many are used for personal need to categorize people you’re following; a smaller percentage are for the “greater good”, to bring together conversations from users around a certain topic (@nytimes/fort-hood-shootings) or characteristic (@palafo/linkers). They will succeed or fail based primarily on their utility along with their ease of use (which includes integration by third-party clients) – and both will take some time to become truly realized for the majority of folks on Twitter.

      But then again, once the future has arrived, Alex will clearly cease to be a valid member of @maryknudson/future-of-journalism…

  4. Alex,

    First off. Nothing misleading about your title. Sorry Ari, but I disagree with you on that.

    Lists bring the power of Linkedin to Twitter into a real time 24 hour global environment. How?

    By being able to see who others put on lists you gain access to the inner workings of their rolodex. By this I mean we may follow hundreds, or even in my case, thousands of people. But who do you trust when it comes to re-tweeting? Who do you trust when it comes to DM’ing? Those who you trust end up on these lists. This equals social capital at it’s highest relevance.

    Trust – as has been said by so many, whether @chrisbrogan or @chrisheuer or @scobleizer and others is the heart of social capital. Your social capital will increase the more you are on lists where people rave about you. It will decrease the more you end up on the “these people suck” lists.

    The power of linkedin comes in through the immediate access to people, regardless of rank and title —– as long they are tweeting for themselves – flattened access minus door keepers and assistants. Get to who you need to get to by using #hashtags and identifying who you need to be conversing with, and just do it.

    Alan W. Silberberg, Founder and CEO of You2Gov,LLc.
    http://www.you2gov.org
    @you2gov – Twitter

  5. Meg

    When my dear friend Chris Brogan expressed some concerns about the introduction of the list feature over at his blog, I said this:

    “Can I ask, if you don’t dig lists on Twitter, why you have an icon to the right proclaiming your rank on a list?

    Certainly you’ve been on other ‘Top’ lists as well — some of which you’ve likely mentioned or tweeted. Many, many people would probably love to be on those lists, but they’re not included for whatever reason (which might make them feel left out, or unsuccessful.)

    Why are some lists okay, and some lists aren’t? Is it because certain lists are based on quantifiable notions (traffic, income, community votes, something?)

    Twitter lists are a no or a yes (there’s no ranking within the list), and not something anyone has to look at unless they want to click through and check it out. It’s opt-in to notice it, unlike a Follow Friday (unless you filter out the hashtag.)”

    And I have yet to develop any sort of concern about lists. Yes, there will be cranky lists. I’m sure I’ll end up on more than one. Yes, there will be exclusive lists. I’m sure someone somewhere will feel left out. Yes, there will be celebrity lists, which will disgust some, and delight others.

    But there have ALWAYS been lists in every part of life (not to mention all other sorts of rankings and hierarchies and awards and designations and on and on.) From my perspective, if you’re constantly worried about where you aren’t being recognized or noticed, you don’t have time to do anything that makes you worth listing.

    Hell, before this, Twitter had Suggested Users, and though we raise an eyebrow at that, it remains and life goes on. It hasn’t affected my Twitter experience at all, just as my place on, or exclusion from lists hasn’t affected how I tweet, how I converse, or why I follow the people I do.

    To me, the whole fuss is just one more example of all things Twitter adhering to Newton’s action-reaction law.

    They introduce something, everyone buzzes. Then everyone bitches. Then everyone considers. Then everyone moves on to the next thing.

    That’s what I’m interested in. The next thing.

  6. Man, Alex, I reject the entire notion of this “we are who we follow” and that we are defined by those that follow us? Are you now going to ask us to hold hands, sway right and left and sing “We Are the World”?

    We are INFORMED by who we follow but that does not “make us.” When I was a journalist, I “followed” all sorts of nefarious characters, bad guys and downright evil people. I had to, it was my job as an investigative reporter. But I was definitely not “of them.” I also “follow” the complete lunatics that make up the GOP these days–Limbaugh, Beck, etc., but do so just to keep tabs on what spin they are putting out so I can better counter it.

    As a reporter I wrote about civil liberties much of the time, consequently, I had any number of militia movement folks following me (“thanks for standing up for our 2nd amendment rights!!” ); I had the White Aryan Nation following me because of my work in favor of free speech, etc., etc. And you claim these nut jobs “define me”?

    I also reject that twitter is all about who you follow or who follows you. That’s just metaphysical, web 2.0 BS.

    Twitter is a tool, nothing more. It’s a high tech party line; you remember party lines (dozens are now googling party lines and finding the Wikipedia entry.. go ahead, I’ll wait…) and party lines were the “high tech” barber shops, general stores and back fences of its era.

    And all this crapola about “lists” … just shoot me… As I told you earlier, lists are the social equivalent of barbed wire (or “barb wire” as its early mfg. Glidden called it). Lists seek to wall off a specific group from the open and free “chatter frontier” of tweets. There’s nothing wrong with lists, but there is an insulting effect that happens when you incorporate them. They are efficient, yes, but it’s killing the advantage of social media, which is all voices, all the time, any-which-way. At any one time you can create an ad hoc search — like when breaking news happens and then discard it when its over. But now I’ve seen journalists advocating lists as a means of keeping out “unreliable” sources. Bullshit. Take any breaking news cast or wire story and compare it with the final copy and you can instantly see just how UNRELIABLE those early reports are, and this is from PROFESSIONAL journalists.

    • digiphile

      Brock, thank you for the thoughtful comment. You’ve been writing in the public eye for considerably longer than I, with both greater reach and scrutiny, and your perspective is both notable and much appreciated.

      I’ve received other useful critiques of this post, especially the notion that “we are” who we follow. You’re right; we’re informed by our sources, we do not become them, although I’ve seen many writers become deeply empathic with an individual or movement.

      As a result, I’ve taken an editor’s prerogative and amended my title to read “informed” instead of “are” as it’s a more accurate description of both the reality and the point I was trying to make in the post itself. You are not a member of any lunatic fringe simply because you might follow a member of it. If you only followed such groups, however, one might make other assumptions.

      In writing about civil liberties, your audience found you and, yes, defined you, whether they disagreed or not with your reporting or the positions they might believe you were taking in that coverage.

      I’ll amend the thrust of my point, if not the title, here too: those who follow us define our online persona as they list or tag us. I don’t see this as a “kumbaya moment” – organized mobs can and will throw off reasoned labels and attach much nastier, inaccurate descriptors. For good or ill, however, tools like Twitter lists or social bookmarking sites like Delicious do create an online persona that is both out of our control and searchable.

      Your point about lists being “high tech party lines is well taken. I’ll think on that. But I’m not convinced that the use of lists by news organizations is all BS, especially as breaking events unfold in real-time. I used the advanced search function to get better information during the Mumbai attacks. I see new orgs applying similar regional operators for the use of their audiences, providing better filters. That strikes me as useful, not insulting.

      The final analysis and coverage is always more cogent, reliable and accurate. Perhaps the need for a definitive version of who, what, where, how and why will be the reason good journalists stay employed.

      • Thanks, Alex, for your reply and for the gracious nature in taking comments that could be construed as less than gracious.

        I still maintain that following a “star chamber” of news outlets in a breaking story provides one with no more accurate a picture than wading through the morass of real-time tweets.

        Let’s look at the most recent example: the shootings at Ft. Hood. All the early reports had one shooter on the scene and that the shooter had been killed. Not 30 minutes later we heard that there was possibly THREE shooters or a one shooter and two accomplices or… and then HOURS later we learn that there was, indeed, only one shooter and–OHMYGAWD–he was alive and in critical condition.

        Meanwhile, the “mob” had already sketched out a profile of the shooter; had confirmed that he was not dead; that there were no second or third shooters…

        But the “reliable” press were stuck in pack journalism mode, each one chasing the early wire reports and, not wanting to be wrong, hesitated to call BS on the wire reports.

        I saw this time and time again when covering breaking stories for MSNBC and I have vivid stories of editors having to nearly physically restrain me from getting on air to report what I absolutely knew to be true but went against ALL other reporting at the time. Several times I even offered to let my editors FIRE ME, immediately, if my information proved wrong (it never was) and still they refused to let me go live… sad, sad situation.

        • digiphile

          I feel that it’s extremely important for writers to both reply to comments on a blog (or article) and to encourage (thoughtful) differing views in that space. Reasonable debate and discussion of the veracity or quality of an argument is one of my favorite ways to dig into an issue, especially if the strongest arguments to the contrary are voiced and addressed. You’ve provided, again, a reason to question the utility of lists by editors to cover breaking news. The example you provide, with respect to the Fort Hood shootings, shows how a distributed mass of editors, reporters, and “citizen journalists” shared information and then sifted, vetted and discarded the facts from the dross. It’s extremely hard, in 140 characters, to indicate how much trust to put in a given data point, which is why I think we’re relying more on trust built up over time for individuals, much like we have for certain mastheads. I think that trust is what’s being conveyed when news organizations put accounts on a given lists — “trust the reporting of these people on this topic” — but you’re right to point out that those lists, however authoritative their creator, should not be the end of a search for sources or facts on that topic.

  7. Leah Rosin

    I’m still just interested in how people are using the lists. Although I’m a little sad to only be on 26 lists, two courtesy of @digiphile, I don’t take it too personally because the lists I am on are interesting — as in, interesting to me to see if I’m doing it right (Twitter). If I’m doing it right, I’ll be on lists in areas I’m interested in and talk about.

    There are three lists that I am on that fascinate me: @fridgebuzz/people list (with 159 real people and myself); @rjamestaylor/met-in-person; and @selenamarie/met. I’m just glad to know that @fridgebuzz knows I’m a person and not a robot… it makes me smile. But, the other two intrigue me because I wonder about the utility of these lists.

    Neither @rjamestaylor or @selenamarie have me categorized in any other list. For me, the utility of the list is to segregate topics or information into useful taxonomies. But people I have met are so varied that I would not find that list useful unless I got to the point where I was forgetting people I had met in person (unlikely), or using it as a personal game, similar to notching a bedpost (not a good analogy, but you get the point). Would anyone like to comment about why a “people I know in real-life” list would be useful (even with future functionality in mind)?

    I know that lists are in their infancy on the main site, and so I’m not taking any of it too seriously — as they mature and as functionality develops, it will be interesting to see how people’s use of them change.

    P.S. The revised title does seem to communicate the point a bit more clearly, and I admire @bnmeeks for following the complete lunatics — I can’t imagine how much my stress-cholesterol would spike if I did so. ;)

  8. Liz

    First, you sure have high quality comments provided by readers of your blog. Although I don’t agree with a lot that’s been said, I rarely see so much thought put into responses to a blog entry.

    I think it’s important to keep some humility about these Lists and not use them as a measure of your self-worth or importance. First, they have only been widely available for about 10 days. People are just discovering how to best use them & if they are anything like me, they’ll create Lists, decide some are unnecessary & delete them & create different ones (I had geographic Lists & then deleted some & created a few topical ones). I’ve made some Private Lists, Public and decided to make one Public List, Private. So, Lists can be constantly in flux and if you see them as a permanent measure or standard you will soon discover that one can be de-Listed as easily as Listed.

    Second, there is absolutely no way to know how many people who follow a List look at it or how often they look at it. I know, including my own, I follow 40 Lists but I probably regularly look at only 4 or 5…and I’ve created 20 of them! Keep that in mind when considering whether Lists expand your “sphere of influence” (a very fuzzy term that gets thrown around on Twitter). Think of the Internet Marketers who have 40,000 Followers but never have an exchange of Tweets with any of those people. Lots of Followers but probably 0 influence on them. You’ll never know how many people follow either your Tweets or a List you’re on will actually ever even see your Tweets much less read them & consider what you have to say.

    I did a TwitPoll and asked people whether they would prefer to be followed or be put on a List and I specified that it was a neutral or positive List, not a “Dirtbags I Know” List. 53% of people said they’d be prefer to be followed, 17% preferred to be placed on a List and 30% said that they didn’t care, either option was fine. Considering the big deal some bloggers were making about Lists being prestigious and exclusive, I had expected more people to respond that they wanted to be included on a List. But, for the majority of people who responded to this poll, being Followed is still more important to them.

    A lot of tech/social media people are flattered because they are included on Lists. But these are Lists created by early adopters. You might be on 100 Lists but you might find out in a month that all Miley Cyrus fans put each other on Lists or there is some 14 year old Jonas Brothers superfan who’s on 2000 Lists. Will the prestige of being on Lists “stick”?

    Or, spammers may discover that while they are initially limited to 2000 people on their Following List, they can follow up to 10,000 people if they utilized Lists in this manner and follow no individuals at all!

    I guess I’d sum it up by going back to my first point. Lists are just a brand new tool and if people continue to be as creative as they have been with other aspects of Twitter, we will be surprised how the variety of ways people use Lists. Think of how initially powerful a #FollowFriday mention was and how after a month or two, it almost became meaningless? Or that a Mr. Tweet recommendation which was for a while, the currency of a good standing became, eh, not such a big deal. Remember Twitter Grader? Who checks their grade any more that that’s no longer the rage.

    The only predictable thing is that every 3-4 months, the ecosystem on Twitter changes. I wonder if we’ll be talking about Lists as much in January 2010.

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  11. I can only hope that those that include me, would do so out of friendship, and not malice. Still getting caught up on this new feature….

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