Why Twitter “Lists” Change Everything

Screen shot 2009-10-19 at 9.10.51 AM

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.

  • http://twitter.com/rotkapchen Paula Thornton

    Half of the fun of the lists are to see 1) what labels people are using for their lists and 2) how some people categorize you (sometimes on multiple lists of their own)

  • http://twitter.com/sourcePOV Chris Jones

    Glad to see the impact of Lists rippling so quickly.

    If they'd just give us the ability to tag someone's profile, we'd be good to go. Maybe that's next month. The early adoption thing is compounding a bit; we'd just started to figure out hashtags .. life in the fast lane, I suppose.

    Looking forward to new and accelerated 'tipping points' ..

  • http://briandrake.wordpress.com/ thedrake

    Great synopsis. I don't know if I think its game changing, but it certainly is a strong vanity marker ;>)

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker


    Thanks so much for this. We have addressed this issue a while back about how many you can follow and that what matters is who you follow and how much attention pay to your urls (e.g., what percentage of your followers clicks on them)….


    And I found out the hard way that keeping up with too many people results in weak ties, these are, unfortunately, not very satisfying:


    Thanks for sharing this important post


  • ZuDfunck

    You have captured my reticence perfectly. Thank you

  • http://www.joshchandlerblog.com Josh Chandler

    @thedrake – Vanity is a perfect word to use for Twitter lists. We can use services such as Twitter in a very egoistical way at times.

    I.E those who are concerned about getting more followers aren't really valuing those who already do so. The addition of lists increases these select users ego, and gives them the impression that they are gaining more popularity, when realistically the user could place them under “annoyingpeopleonTwitter” 🙂

  • http://bitstrategist.wordpress.com bitstrategist

    Terrific post, and the most cogent thing I've seen anyone write on the topic beyond typical new-feature praise and pillory (i.e., “Lists are great,” “Lists are evil,” “Ban lists!”).

    Beyond the great points you've made, I'd say lists also complicate the calculus of influence significantly. For example, if there are ten lists on “venture capitalists” (with the usual disambiguation problems), then how do you judge which list is the most influential? Is it the number of followers of the list creator? The collective number of followers of the list members? The collective number of lists of the list members? The whole discussion of metrics and ROI hasn't even begun on this topic yet (at least, not that I've seen).

    A last thought: I wonder if at some point the FTC will step in and regulate the kind of “list payola” you describe as a form of paid endorsement. 🙂

  • guarionex88

    Excellent analysis.

  • http://twitter.com/DanCollinstwit Dan Collins

    This is an excellent post. I was particularly interested in your phrase 'curatorial economy' which describes the next shift (also the view of this simple guy) very well. http://www.asimpleguyblog.blogspot.com/

  • asgoodandbetter

    Ooh, I like “curatorial economy.” You should trademark that gem and turn this blog into a full-length book by next week, while you still can! 🙂

    Thanks for the lucid analysis. It's certainly going to be interesting to see what this move leads to on the part of users. At first glance it seems like the groups people can build on TweetDeck, Seesmic and HootSuite, but reading blogs like this has made me realize its impact will be much greater…

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  • http://twitter.com/ricsam Ricardo Serrano

    Check this article http://mashable.com/2009/10/27/social-media-roi/, especially Oliver Blanchard's slide presentation. The ROI topic in social media intiatives very nascent, but I have a feeling will be addressing this issue soon (can't go forever investing in social media hoopla without getting something in return!).

  • suzyoge

    Living in a country that is a bit slow on the twitter uptake, (the Netherlands) and working with traditional small business owners who are slow to see the potential for their business, it is a shame to see the lists “change everything”. The direct & indirect followers, listed etc. take away the simplicity of twitter, especially for newbies.

    The crowning of curators marks the beginning of the end of the democracy of twitter. At least, as you mentioned, the “little people” still have the option to create douchebag lists, for now! (That made me laugh out loud.)

  • ursulas

    Thanks! I didn't realize that you can put someone in a 'list' without following them. This was helpful!

  • myrnatheminx

    Love this post Dave. I usually describe the people in my stream as my curators so I am so on board with “curatorial economy.” To add, my problem with lists in general is that they often leave off some really great people thanks to a lack of diversity and thoughtfulness. Lists are often made by the same people pushing forward the same people–replicating what I hate about all of those stupid “Top Ten People in Social Media” like lists. The ubiquity of Chris Brogan is a case in point–no offense to Brogan of course–it's not really his fault. I am making private, functional lists at this point. And when I make public lists, they will be “anti-lists,” or lists that don't push forward the same people.

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  • alisoncreamer

    GREAT Post ! Im sure this list will create a big buzzzzz. I for one am excited to see how many I make it to so far Im up to 12 so Im pretty happy anyone even wants to follow me.

  • http://bitstrategist.wordpress.com bitstrategist

    Funny, I just stumbled on Olivier Blanchard's presentation today and am looking forward to reading it. Lots of good discussion (on mashable and elsewhere) about social media ROI. It will be interesting to see how it evolves with the addition of lists into the mix!

  • texasholly


  • http://www.muellerandrew.com andrewmueller


    Great post, you made some very insightful connections and I agree most everything you mentioned. I am in 100% agreement that the quantity of lists that one is on is of little importance, but certain specific lists you are on could be very important.

    I also wrote a post about list wherein I touch upon the idea that twitter lists may create a duality of twitizen and amplify the power imbalances between those who are selected to be on the lists of influential people and those who are not.

    I would love to hear what you think of my premise, If you are interested to read it, it resides here: http://bit.ly/1glydV

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    Great article! Guess we never learn out about twitter. 🙂

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  • http://www.dancingonthepage.com/ Zoe

    Thanks, Im pretty new to twitter and it's interesting to know. I only just found out what RT means.

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  • http://hyperlocavore.wordpress.com hyperlocavore.com

    Really interesting, Thank you.

  • http://hyperlocavore.wordpress.com hyperlocavore.com

    Really interesting, Thank you.

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