How lists may have saved us

Clipboard with checklistIt seems everyone hates Twitter lists.  Among the top complaints are that they’re just another way to make cliques and make some feel less deserving than others. This is certainly a valid point, but there’s a gold mine of a benefit it seems no one has considered (or shouted loudly enough about) — one of the major upsides may have in fact have helped save Twitter (at least in how it applies to PR/Marketing).  There are, of course, some downsides besides the clique factor…

Editor’s Note: (Cog here)  This one ran a bit longer than expected.  Get some coffee and get comfy.

First, the pros of the Twitter lists

1) They’ve made follower counts irrelevant

We’ve all been concerned with our count at one point or another. We’ve got clients who care how many followers they’ve got and have certain expectations. Because of the way following a list operates, a list follower does not add to a person’s actual follower count.  Therefore the ‘follower’ count (and causally the follower:following ratio) becomes (essentially) impossible to calculate.

Simply adding the list count to the follower count does no good as lists can have any number of followers (though it seems the great majority of lists have very few followers through my own quick survey and that of Kaan Yigit (@kyigit – a great follow BTW)).

Just adding the list count to the follower count would provide an  artificially low count assuming there are any lists with a real following.  And taking it one step further and adding the total people following each list an account is on will provide an artificially high number as there’s likely crossover on who’s following a list, particularly on accounts with a distinct (sector) approach.

And so, all of the sudden the actual reach of a tweet (or influence of a tweeter/twitterer) is impossible to determine. This is particularly true since it seems (as mentioned above) the modal follower count of lists is zero. Therefore very little can be inferred from follower or list count now.  Even if we start making the assumptions on those stats due to of the endless variety of list composition they’re bound to be flawed.

By way of example — Ashton is on 16K lists.  Try to make any kind of assumption based on that sample group.

So it is that we’re now thrust into a world where one of the primary metrics we’ve been asked to use to judge success is unquantifiable.  Imagine if this had happened to traditional media — circulation numbers became unavailable we had to rely on the quality of the publication/readership and convince clients using only this subjective or qualifiable (v. quantifiable) data.

Here’s another little oddity to confuse matters a bit further — of the lists  I’m on (149 as of this writing), two have a follower count equal to or greater than the number of people on the list.

2) They can be fun

I’ve seen a number of fun lists that obviously serve no objective ‘purpose.’  One in particular that stands out is Amy Mengel’s Desert Island list. Mostly a good group of folks I would have no objection being stranded with (notwithstanding the M:F ratio) provided someone on the list was a boy or girl scout at some point.

3) They can provide real insight into how people view you/your account

Continuing to use the lists I’m on as an example, of the (it couldn’t be 150 to make the math easy?), 101 list me in PR (or with a PR-related organization (e.g. PRBC, PRSA (even though I’m not a PRSA member))), 15 list me for non-professional/social reasons (even if I met them through the PR connection), 1 as a brand (along with Hugh Jackman, Chris Cornell, The White House and MediaBistro — w00t) and (until recently) 1 listed me as a “smart woman” (?).  I’m ok with most of this.

And now. . .

The cons of lists
1) Yes, the cliquiness

Ok, it’s possible. I’ve never been one to believe in cliques. I’ve always had friends in all circles and simply didn’t believe friendship stopped at some invisible border. In high school I was equally close friends with the quarterback of the football team and the president of the debate club and they couldn’t have been more different.  In college I was in a fraternity for about 3 weeks (and served as pledge president) until I realized it wasn’t for me, dropped, but remained friends (or refriended by the end of the year for those that held a grudge) nearly all of the brothers.

2) [and this is the big one] Lists, as they operate now, prevent 2-way engagement and conversation

I may be in the minority here but I check the bios of everyone who follows me (one of the reasons I love twhirl – it shows follower bio, not their most recent tweet) and refollow if it seems they’ll have something of interest to say (more on the importance of a good bio in a separate post).

Because those followed via list do not get notification of a new follow we  have no way to know the biographies of those who start following us. Heck, if a profile is of particular interest because of a client/employer i’ll even open a conversation based on that alone.

Of course I could check out a new follower’s profile when I get a RT or @ reply, but really when you’re following any number of people and have been on Twitter for more than a few months, you’re likely to assume that you’ve already checked the bio/profile of anyone suddenly engaging you and either chosen to follow or not follow when they first followed you. To start checking every bio (of those you may not know off the top of your head) for every piece of conversation will certainly be a new pain.

3) Can’t individually unfollow

Here’s the scenario – a new Twitterer follows a list, or a few lists, in their field.  Let’s say there’s someone on that list, or a few of those lists, whose tweets are something objectionable for some reason (could be the content of the tweets, or even the frequency *cough*).

To unfollow that person the new Twitterer actually needs to block them or unfollow the entire list(s) that person is on.  Which is just slightly idiotic.  Eventually the blocked user may change their style or content and be of interest to the new twitterer, but there’d be no way (besides intentionally going back to revisit their stream) for the twitterer to know this.

And so, the fix (it’s simple)

Enable lists the way tweepml.org has done it. The list exists, but everyone is followed individually through Twitter’s existing follow mechanism.  Now, 1) those followed, can see everyone who follows them and choose to engage or not, 2) the follower can disengage a single person and, 3) those followed can actually send direct messages (which I’m guessing isn’t possible through lists).  We’ll lose the benefit of making follower counts irrelevant but that seems a small price to pay for actually being able to know who’s following us and engage in 2-way dialog.  That, and really, aren’t there still things on Twitter that need fixing before we start with new half-baked ideas?

Bring it….

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  • http://twitter.com/booksbelow Roger Hjulstrom

    You raise some good points, pro and con about lists. I have been very leery of the list feature so far and haven't created any yet. The cons immediately came to my mind, the pros are seeping in more slowly. I tend to wait for the Mach II version of things lately. I'm sure I'll eventually use lists to some degree.

  • kathyhokunson

    You have given the whole “lists” conversation new insight for me. Honestly, the launch of lists didn't really intrigue me. I use tweetdeck and already had created groups for my organization and benefit. It seemed what twitter had come out with was bit redundant and anti-climatic. However, You have raised some interesting points on the usage of lists. I also agree with you on the importance of maintaining quality in the conversation by “knowing” how you follow and why.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hi Roger -

    I definitely feel they'll have their place, just unsure about the timing and getting past the first set of growing pains (waiting for Mach II) :).

    Thanks for your comment,
    ~Cog

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hi Kathy :)

    Great to see you at PRBC :). Thanks so much for your comments. I really am disappointed in the way the lists have blocked what made Twitter so great at the start (IMHO) – the ease with which we could meet new people and participate in 2-way conversation.

    The evolution will be interesting as more and more new Twitterers will most likely use lists with more frequency than the original twitter group meaning they'll get the content of hundreds with nothing showing up on their stats.

    Thanks again

  • http://twitter.com/booksbelow Roger Hjulstrom

    You raise some good points, pro and con about lists. I have been very leery of the list feature so far and haven't created any yet. The cons immediately came to my mind, the pros are seeping in more slowly. I tend to wait for the Mach II version of things lately. I'm sure I'll eventually use lists to some degree.

  • kathyhokunson

    You have given the whole “lists” conversation new insight for me. Honestly, the launch of lists didn't really intrigue me. I use tweetdeck and already had created groups for my organization and benefit. It seemed what twitter had come out with was bit redundant and anti-climatic. However, You have raised some interesting points on the usage of lists. I also agree with you on the importance of maintaining quality in the conversation by “knowing” how you follow and why.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hi Roger -

    I definitely feel they'll have their place, just unsure about the timing and getting past the first set of growing pains (waiting for Mach II) :).

    Thanks for your comment,
    ~Cog

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hi Kathy :)

    Great to see you at PRBC :). Thanks so much for your comments. I really am disappointed in the way the lists have blocked what made Twitter so great at the start (IMHO) – the ease with which we could meet new people and participate in 2-way conversation.

    The evolution will be interesting as more and more new Twitterers will most likely use lists with more frequency than the original twitter group meaning they'll get the content of hundreds with nothing showing up on their stats.

    Thanks again

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  • http://ariwriter.com Ari Herzog

    It seems that those of us who love Twitter Lists are using twitter.com more than other desktop/mobile applications. I have ~18 lists following several hundred people. By contrast, I've reduced my inbound stream to a few dozen. Much more productive and finetuned every day.

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