Why Twitter “Lists” Change Everything

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I typically hate writing about topical technology subjects, because most often it’s reactive, worthless speculation.

However, the new Twitter “Lists” feature has me thinking; this is an interesting feature not because of the “tech” but because of the implications on the developing economics of social networks.

First, what it is: Twitter “Lists” allows you to create lists of Twitter users that are stored within Twitter’s servers. You can name those lists (/twitter.com/davetroy/art) and those URL’s can either be public or private.

People can then follow those lists, which really is more like “bookmarking” them, as they do not appear in your Twitter stream. Those lists in turn keep track of how many “followers” they have, and you can see how many people “follow” the lists you create.

Traditional “Follower Economics” Are Dead

Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone always said that the best way to get real value out of Twitter was to follow a small number of people; it was never their intention for people to aim to follow more than 150-200 people (the “Dunbar number,” or people we can realistically expect to maintain relationships with).

With “Lists” you can add someone to a list, but not necessarily “follow” them. So, instead of “following” Ashton Kutcher, you can put him in a list that you call “actors,” or “attention whores.”

You can even put someone in a list (cool people), have them publicize that, and then change the name of that list to something less flattering (douchebags, or worse).

The issue of derogatory lists alone is one that Twitter will need to address.

So traditional “follower counts” are going to be meaningless – instead of “followers” people are going to start talking about “direct followers,” “indirect followers,” and “being listed.” It’s all changing, and I applaud Twitter for being willing to throw the old (flawed) assumptions about follower economics entirely out the window in favor of a new approach.

Buying Influence and Reputation

Within a few hours of the introduction of “Lists” I was put onto a few:

  • @danmartell/founders
  • @Scobleizer/venture-capitalists
  • @christinelu/vc-and-angels
  • @DarrellHudson/top-500-techies
  • @kim/rockin-this-twitter
  • @the_api_book/twitter_history

This early “seed” of my reputation is quite flattering and arguably pretty powerful (though a fraction of what I expect my ultimate “listings” will be). It shows that I am an “investor” and a “techie,” and considered so by some pretty influential people. I did nothing to influence this and would not consider doing so.

But, I am lucky and glad to have been so-described this early on. What if I really wanted to influence what lists I was on, or to appear on as many lists as possible? I can imagine now the jockeying to get onto the lists of all the “A-List” digitalistas will be intense and powerfully ugly.

Imagine the seedy things that might go on at tradeshows in exchange for getting “listed.”

Going forward, the primary question will be which specific lists you appear on (influence of curator, quality, scarcity) and, secondarily, how many lists you appear on (reach, influence).

“1M Followers” will be replaced by “listed by over 50,000,” or even “listed by the top 10 most influential people in microfinance.” And yes, listing counts will be a fraction of follower count, as lists will necessarily divvy up the people you follow through categorization.

Scarcity: You get 20 lists

It looks like people are allowed just twenty lists right now. That’s undoubtedly a scaling and design decision by Twitter to keep things manageable.

Putting aside for a moment all the reasons why people might want more than 20 lists, let’s accept the limitation. You get 20 lists. So it’s a scarce resource. It means Scoble, Kawasaki, Gladwell, Brogan, Alyssa Milano, Oprah, Biz, etc, all each get just 20 lists.

What will someone pay to get onto one of these lists?

Do you think that an author would pay to get onto twitter.com/oprah/incredible-writers? Yeah, I do too. Now imagine that, writ large, and scummier, with people even less reputable than Oprah. Now you see what I’m talking about.

At least buying followers is a scummy behavior that’s amortized over millions of targets; buying 1/20th of one particular follower’s blessing could lead to very high prices and extremely unsavory dealings.

The Coming “Curatorial Economy”

Twitter is doing this thing, and whatever Twitter does in house trumps anything that a third party developer might do, period. So, stuff like WeFollow, etc, your brother’s cool thing he’s making, Twitter directories: they are done, people. Or these external things must at least accept the reality of Lists and what they mean to the ecosystem.

Some folks have been complaining about the user interface for list management, etc, and that’s all moot: it will be available through the API, and you should expect list cloning, lists of lists, mobile client support, etc, pretty soon.

But the genie is out of the bottle. Start managing your reputation in a way that’s authentic and ethical and stay on top of this. And be prepared for what I’m calling the “curatorial economy.” (You heard it here first.)

Everybody’s making collections, and there are certainly people who will pay and be paid for listings. Count on it.

Crowdsourcing a Movie: @stickermovie

On Monday, my wife and I went out for breakfast and she observed a bumper sticker on the back of an SUV. She said, “I just want to talk to these people and find out what makes people want to put these things on their cars.”

Those of you who know me well know that idle conversation runs a real risk of becoming reality; I tend to act on impulse to create things, especially if I can see a simple (enough) path to bring them to fruition.


Hence was born the idea behind Sticker Movie (working title), a documentary about the tribal meaning behind the stickers that people put on their cars. And so yesterday while working at the Hive, I tweeted that this would be a cool idea.

I immediately got back about 10 responses from people who liked the idea, and so I thought this idea might have some legs. Jared Goralnick (@technotheory) suggested that a project like this might be too much to take on (especially given everything else I am doing), and if I was interested in doing it all myself, he’d be right. But, I like to do what I’ve been calling marshaling the resources of the universe.

And Twitter is great at coaxing the universe into doing stuff. Efforts like @socialdevcamp, @bhivebmore, @baltimoreangels, @ignitedc are all things that wanted to happen and that I’ve helped catalyze in the last few months using Twitter — without having to do them all entirely by myself. And so it will be with @stickermovie — the first crowdsourced documentary.

We are going to start by getting submissions of bumper sticker images, so we can observe broad themes and develop a potential line of inquiry for the filming.  Then we’ll use the power of networks to find an appropriate production team and any necessary funding. Finally, we’ll use networks to help drive the release of the film at festivals, and if it makes it that far, we will use social networks to drive the release theatrically.

So, big ambitions — no idea how it’ll work out, but I think the universe is on our side. It’s an interesting topic. Bumper stickers are a kind of modern tribal marker, and they tell us a lot about our culture and its own ambitions.

If you’re interested in following the @stickermovie story, go ahead and follow us on Twitter. We’ll be starting the sticker image collection shortly, and will keep folks apprised of our progress.

We hope @stickermovie will be another example of using Twitter to marshal the resources of the universe. Stay tuned. And start taking pictures of bumper stickers!

SocialDevCamp East + TwitterVoteReport = Busy

Being busy seems to always come in spurts for me… just when it looks like I’ve got too much to do already, something cool turns up and takes things to whole new level of busy.

That would be this week. SocialDevCamp East, the barcamp-style unconference that I started with some friends last spring is back tomorrow, and that’s certainly required some coordination and planning.  That would have been plenty.  We have over 200 RSVP’s now (between the Wiki and Facebook) and we expect a truly incredible day of networking and learning.  See you tomorrow!

The other big news of the last two weeks has been the TwitterVoteReport project, for which I’ve been acting as defacto CTO since about October 18th.  This is a great project, a great cause, and an awesome idea.  The data we collect will be an archival quality primary source document for future generations to study the evolution of the election process.

We have five distinct data sources coming in about people’s experience at their polling places: Twitter, Telephone, Direct SMS, and Apps for Android and iPhone.  These are all normalized and aggregated into a single database and reviewed by humans for maximum accuracy.  The data will then be made available in real time to anyone who wants it — from the media to watchdog groups to mapmakers — to help the world understand and monitor the 2008 US elections.

Putting this project together, with all these diverse inputs, has been a monumental task and a real demonstration of what’s possible when people decide to work together.  We had over 600 phone channels donated.  We were able to think up, code, and submit an iPhone app in just 3 days.  We’ve received press coverage far and wide from sources as diverse as TechCrunch and Fox News.  Not bad for a few days’ work.

There’s plenty more to do still (between now and Monday), and I’m busy all day tomorrow at SocialDevCamp.  We’ll do a session there on TwitterVoteReport and what we’re up to… we still need more help from people good with maps!

I’ll post more here as things evolve, and a recap next week, but remember, nothing’s impossible when caring people dedicate themselves to a common endeavor.

Meantime, check out:

And watch for news about TwitterVoteReport.com on NPR and in the Baltimore Sun (in addition to myriad other outlets!)

Twittervision Election View

An hour or so ago I launched Twittervision Election View, allowing viewers to see posts to Twitter about the 2008 election in their original geographic context.

Twitter launched something similar this morning, and the idea to do a political view of Twittervision has been around for a while, so it seemed natural to try to do this now and especially in advance of tonight’s debate.

We have some enhancements planned, and right now the site is getting a ton of traffic as people discover it… we should be able to put some more server capacity on it which should keep things steady.

Let me know what you think!