How to Fix Twitter Lists

01/12/2011 By Shawn Burns

Everyone likes showing up on a Twitter List.

“Hey sweet! I’m on Backpacking Dad’s “People Who Have Successfully Rickrolled Me” List!”

But the Lists themselves are getting way less mileage than they ought to be getting. How do I know this? Research, research, research. I’ve asked at least one person, and this person was all “No, I don’t find those Lists useful.”

Now, before you get all up in arms about what this person said, let me say that he has a point. I never, I mean he never, uses other people’s Lists to do anything.

So why are they public?

The Blogroll Problem

In a lot of ways Twitter Lists are like blogrolls: “Here is who I find interesting enough to read, or a big list of writers who I hope check their linkbacks so they can see that I’m kind of stalking them. I hope flattery will get me to second base.” And one problem with blogrolls is that they are used like a dumping ground for names: “I read X and Y and Z…..and as soon as I get around to it I have like 50 more links to put up because it is very very important that you all know that I am reading these but I just. can’t. stop. adding.”

Twitter Lists end up being a lot like dumping grounds for names rather than organizational tools. How has your List helped you sort through the noise?

More, or at least just as, importantly, how has your List helped anyone else sort through the noise?

No one reads your Twitter List except when they see that you’ve added them to it.

Again, why are they public?

The Public Value Problem

I actually use Twitter Lists, privately, through a third-party platform, to help organize my own wanderings. I have a few public ones, but for the most part my Lists are not public because they have no public value, except as part of a joke that you probably don’t get.

Your List has no public value either. You have three hundred people on a “People I Like” List and there’s no reason at all for anyone to care that you like them. Why do you like them? If I care who you like then I already follow you, and I already see you talking about other people, quoting or retweeting their tweets, so I don’t need to see your List of “People I Say I Like But I Never Interact With In Such a Way That Anyone Can Tell I Like Them”.

Maybe you have two hundred people on a “Social Media Game Changers” List. You would think that setting up a public list like that would be superior to the “People I Like” List, since it seems more focused, but it isn’t. Why? Because there are two hundred people on it, and that’s as good as saying “I don’t really have an opinion about the value of the Tweets you will read by the people on this List”. To add value for public consumption you need to do more work than just saying “I noticed that lots of people like @mashable, so he should go on this List or else people will think my List is a joke.”

Have two hundred people on your private “Social Media Game Changers” List if you want. It might help you organize your life to do that. But don’t make that List public or else you’ve done nothing better than taking a cup of water out of the bathtub and pouring it back in and calling the act of pouring a contribution.

I think public Twitter Lists are useless, as public Lists, if they are not constructed with some care. But many people will disagree with that, and will continue to love the idea of just being on Lists and sharing Lists. And frankly, it’s kind of addictive to just keep adding people to Lists because you can, so I don’t think anyone is likely to stop creating noisy Lists just because they’re aware that the Lists are noisy.

A Solution For My Pet Peeve

So my suggestion to Twitter is to create separate standards for private Lists and public Lists. Your private Lists can be as long as you want or feel you need them to be in order to organize your life and your online interactions. Your public Lists, however, will be limited in two ways: First, you can only display a small number of Lists (3 or 4) publicly. And second, those Lists that are made public cannot exceed some small number (20-25) of members. This makes public Lists useful for someone other than the creator of the List, and will increase the likelihood that people will click over to those pages beyond just seeing who else made the List they just found themselves on. Users may not be able to use Lists to compliment other people, but it’s pretty easy to just send someone a public reply saying “That was great!” You don’t need Lists for that.

This solution will also cut down on the bot-follow Lists that are being generated now. “Here Are People I Just Spoke To!” “Here Are People My Friends Just Spoke To!” Those Lists, generated by third-party sites, automatically, are worse than the indiscriminate Lists we just make ourselves. They are noise-upon-noise. Restricting public Lists will make those Lists disappear. They may be useful to one person, but they are just noise to everyone else.

Some will claim that forcing a top-down solution on users is the wrong way to go, that the cream will rise to the top and if what people really need and want are public Lists with carefully selected members then they will only follow those users who create and promote such Lists, and a natural selection will occur without having to constrain the freedom of users. But I think the problem, the noisy List problem, is too far gone to be solved through natural selection unless we want to wait around for a decade or so to see how Internet tastes have changed. Twitter lists are noise now, so fixing them requires a solution that is less organic than we might prefer, or else they will be useless.

Except for my “People Who Have Successfully Rickrolled Me” List, that is. That one is useful every day. Watch out for those people.