The Push and Pull of Twitter Lists
When I started using Twitter, one of the things I liked best about it was that I had no idea what to do with it.
It felt like a throwback to earlier days of the Web, when you might toss up a Web page or a blog and see what happened, when you got ideas from looking around and seeing somebody had done something you hadn’t thought of, and immediately thought, “Hey, I could do that too.”
Eventually, as I’ve written before, the light bulb above my head went on and I got what made Twitter useful — as well as the realization that without my noticing, Twitter had changed the way I searched for and received news in fundamental ways. When Twitter lists arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them either — but my initial Twitter experiences had taught me not to stress about it. Relax. It’s Twitter — it’ll come to you.
This week the a-ha moment for lists came — it was what the new Texas Tribune was doing with Tweetwire. (Hat tip: I found Tweetwire through Martin Langeveld’s very fine guided tour of the Tribune at Nieman.) In thinking about Twitter’s usefulness for newspapers and other publishers, I’d gotten stuck thinking of Twitter as primarily a method of delivering news and secondarily a way of enhancing one’s brand, with the two ideally working hand-in-hand. The idea of using it as a way of aggregating news from a multitude of sources hadn’t occurred to me — even though that was exactly the way I was using Twitter as a reader. Making lists and presenting them to readers was an easy way for publishers to play curator and aggregator. Lists would let them create a dynamic, real-time news feed — with some welcome personality in the mix and the ability to include user-generated content. Think of a New Orleans Saints beat writer setting up a tweetwire for his paper that includes his own tweets mixed in with those of other beat writers, the best independent Saints bloggers and some consistently wise and/or entertaining fans. Or think what a reporter covering global warming or campaign-finance reform could do with it. (On Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik explores that idea and others in more detail.)
So, yes, lists are a valuable tool that publishers will hopefully make use of. But there’s another side to the change, one explored very nicely by Megan Garber on CJR. (Though goodness, somebody give that headline another try.)
Garber puts her finger on something that’s bothered me, too:
Lists are limiting not only in the physical sense, but also in the definitional: in categorizing Twitter users—‘Funny People,’ ‘Smart People,’ ‘People Interested in the Mating Habits of Short-Nosed Fruit Bats,’ etc.—they generally highlight only one aspect of a user’s personality and then define the user according to it. But that narrowness could, in turn, encourage people to conform their tweets to the lists they belong to: for ‘Funny People’ to limit their tweets to funny things, ‘Smart People’ to smart things, etc. Rather than a hodgepodgy amalgam of people’s thoughts about whatever they happen to come across in their jumbled, chaotic, and category-resistant daily lives, we may soon start to see stratification.
My tweets are generally about one of three things — digital journalism, the New York Mets, or Star Wars. (I’m acutely aware that I may be the only person in the world interested in all three.) When I first started tweeting, I wondered if I should create three separate Twitter personae. But it seemed like a lot of work, and I couldn’t figure out which persona I would use for the occasional tweet that was just random or personal. Would I cross-post those to all three? Rotate them? Worrying about this, all of a sudden I felt like a candidate’s image handler, and that was no fun at all. It’s just Twitter. Oh, and get over yourself.
So I let my Twitter account reflect who I really was (well, as much as any online persona truly does), and trusted anyone who cared to sort out my various interests and contradictions. (Speaking of which, you can follow me if you like.) But this worry returned with lists. Every time I got added to a list, my first reaction was to be happy, in an invited-to-an-7th-grade-party way that I wish motivated me less than it does. But my next reaction was always: Oh no, this person’s expecting tweets about journalism/Star Wars/the Mets, and my tweets about something else will screw up their list.
Garber’s thought about the same thing, and her worry is that she’ll censor herself to better fit lists’ expectations, with other people doing the same. She notes that she’s found she likes the off-topic stuff — “the little quirks of people whose ideas I admire, whose work I follow.” As do I.
It’s impossible to say how this will sort out, other than that it will be determined through the kind of ongoing, uncontrolled social experiment that’s shaped almost everything else about Twitter practices. My first thought was a technical solution: Let users modify their inclusion in lists with an internal hashtag. But that seems both complicated and like it would eat up even more of our already-precious 140 characters. No, the answer will be a social one, worked out tacitly over time. I just hope that the minutiae remain in the mix. Twitter’s a wonderful information source, but it comes with a welcome seasoning of personality and a gleeful sense of being just slightly out of control. It would be a better information source without those things, perhaps, but it would also be a less interesting place.
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