A couple weeks ago, Twitter announced that a new feature—lists—was in development. Yesterday, a small percentage of Twitter users were granted access to the Beta version of lists, to provide some feedback before a wider release. It won’t take long before this change produces lasting consequences for the microblogging service.
Groups Have Always Been Around
From the beginning, the notion of groups has been absent from Twitter … at least officially. Early competitors like Jaiku and Pownce offered ways to follow events or topics, but Twitter avoided that (quite probably for architectural reasons, as well as for simplicity). That didn’t stop the Twitter community from improvising.
Lifted from IRC, Jaiku’s use of # led to Chris Messina’s proposal for hashtags, now firmly a part of the culture of use for Twitter. There have also been third-party applications, like TwitterGroups and Tweetworks, that specifically manage groups of followers. Popular web and desktop clients now embed this feature, too, but all of these solutions are simply methods of filtering existing twitter streams. To share lists of interesting followers, one had to go old school—write a blog post, or simply create a new Twitter account for that purpose—or work with a new open standard.
All of this happened before Twitter’s announcement of their lists feature. Members of the community fulfilled their own need. With API support, lists should quickly lead to upgrades across the board for existing Twitter tools, as well as some brand new third-party applications built around new user needs.
While this is going to produce a bunch of happy campers initially, lists may also change behavior in unexpected ways.
The assumption for most people is that inclusion on a list is a social currency. As with follows, the more people who include you on a list, the greater your perceived influence. However, not all lists are going to carry positive connotations. Web consultant Orli Yakuel discovered during Beta testing that you don’t have the ability to opt out of lists. If someone wants to label you a spammer, noisy or something you don’t want to be, you may not have the ability to reject that label. It may mean your only recourse is to communicate with the list owner in the same way you might engage someone who writes a bad review of your product. Similarly, exclusion from a high-profile list may damage your reputation.
Death to Culture
Follow Friday is a recurring Twitter meme created by Micah Baldwin at the start of 2009. It regularly fills the tweet stream with hundreds of thousands of #followfriday hashtags at the end of the week, each tweet suggesting other people who might provide interesting content. Not everyone participates or enjoys reading endless context-deprived tweets with random names, but those who do have evolved their conventions over months of practice. Introducing lists will certainly challenge the norm—evolving from @usernames to links, or possibly even ending the need for Follow Friday outright. Some will rejoice, but others may cultivate a negative view of lists and what they did to damage their Twitter experience.
Pruning Follow Networks
Most Twitter users have small follow networks anyway, but for early adopters and those who follow as many people as possible, lists may be a way to justifying pruning. Including someone on a specific list—which has no cost to one’s own consumption of information—can be a way of recognizing or promoting an individual without needlessly escalating the relationship to a follow. This is possible because lists members don’t have to come from your follow network; you can add any account. A spot on a prestigious list may be worth more to a person than whether the list owner is following his tweets. On the other hand, lists may simply increase the social pressure to recognize strangers in a new way, beyond returning a follow.
If lists take off, there is a danger that users—particularly new members joining Twitter—will treat the channel as simply information broadcast. When you follow a group of people as a unit, relationships are not necessary. The members of a particular list won’t be notified each time someone opts to follow the group (emails are sent when you follow individually), offering no prompt to evaluate or engage that person. Lists can add great value to understanding the full Twitter network, by providing another form of endorsement and semantic description. However, the cost may be a decrease in relational value. Without relationships, Twitter is reduced to a customizable RSS feed.