Twitter Lists: Proof That Social Media Misunderstands Itself

When Twitter rolled out list functionality this month, the predictable happened:

  • The early adopters experimented with their shiny new toy.
  • The users who didn’t initially have access to it ached and pouted.
  • Mashable wrote a how-to guide.
  • The easily-distracted got bored.

But since technology only stays in the headlines when it’s new, polarizing or from Apple, something had to stoke the flames, and that something turned out to be a polarizing post from Chris Brogan.

In it, Chris argues that lists are just another form of exclusion — that by adding Person X to my list but not Person Y, I’m inferring that Person Y is less interesting or less valuable than Person X, and that’s mean.  And since social media is primarily the domain of easily wounded narcissists, excluding them can’t possibly be good for the team.  Fellow gurus like Mack Collier concurred.

This argument was then eviscerated with pulse-pounding fervor by Robert Scoble, who — armed with a litany of narrative tricks that make his post read like a gradeschool taunting — made Chris look like a girly-man for wanting everyone to feel loved.  In Scoble’s world, people are judged by their merit; simply wanting to be included is not enough to get you invited to his party.

And since this contentious issue’s SEO juice had now been percolated, hundreds of comments and companion posts popped up from people with equally valid opinions.

None of which is the actual point.

Nor is the actual point this, though it bears explaining: Twitter lists are a tool which, like Twitter itself, can be used any damn way you please.  You want to make a list of Thought Leaders?  Be my guest.  If I’m not on it, I’ll survive.  I’m not you, and I don’t use Twitter the same way you do, so I can’t judge the way you use it.  (Except for those times when I do.)  I may disagree with you, but I grant you the freedom to be horribly wrong.

No, the actual point is that social media misunderstands itself.

Why We Can’t All Just Get Along

This most recent debate over merit vs. popularity was born from Chris’s concern that some very talented but underrated bloggers and social media innovators will be left off other people’s Twitter lists, and that — like a teen, whose suddenly obvious unpopularity fuels her weekly trips to Hot Topic — this exclusion would somehow discourage them from participating further.  This concern is similar to the conclusion of The Incredibles, in which young Dash is urged by his father to “come in second” so as to not crush the hopes and dreams of his fellow racers — who, because they’re trying so hard, are equally deserving of success.  Chris’s argument presumes that failure is a catalyst for giving up, and that runaway success is to be avoided at all costs so as to not demoralize one’s peers.

But Chris and Scoble’s debate wouldn’t be as contentious as it is if he and Scoble weren’t as popular as they are.  Ironically, the very merit bestowed upon Chris by thousands of discerning readers who’ve judged him “worthy” over the years has provided him with the immense platform from which he can now summarily declare that all tweets are created equal.

Except they’re not.

Social Media Is Functionally Unable to Be a Meritocracy

As much as everyone in social media claims they’d like their work to be judged on its actual merit, the metrics we use to measure that merit — followers, readers, page views, reach — are really measurements of popularity.  Our system of separating the worthy (Brogan, Scoble) from the non (everyone who’s writing about Brogan and Scoble) isn’t based on the relative value of the worthy people’s statements, but on the likelihood that those statements will be read, considered and adopted by the fishbowl at large.

What’s ironic is that Twitter lists represent a departure from that norm, in which users are free to form lists based on their own criteria, rather than the obvious power numbers.  And just like everyone has different favorites on YouTube, Flickr or Digg, everyone who builds his own Twitter lists will have different criteria to help determine who he thinks is “worthy” of inclusion.  In turn, this increased exposure may help those underrated and undervalued gems that Chris was originally concerned about slowly gain the type of exposure that passes for validation in this fishbowl, thanks to increased awareness by the people who are searching for just such an underdog.

Social media is a lot of things, but thick-skinned isn’t one of them.  It’s a medium of instant validation (or lack thereof), and seeing others succeed while you continue to tread water can be disheartening in real time.  But there’s a converse to that mentality: if the next guy has more blog subscribers than you do, consider it a benchmark to aspire to, rather than a reason to quit.  (Or realize that you’re each trafficking in different audiences, and be content to grow yours organically.)

We may not all be equal, but we’re all individuals.  And that realization will carry us much farther as a whole than any insistence that we all be invited to the same party.

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  • Michelle D’Attilio

    Great read- I think the issue is less about the lists and whether or not you made this one or that one and more about the fact that the lists are made public. We’ve been putting people in lists since TweetDeck and many other platforms were created, people just didn’t know if they made a list or not. In any case, we all need to get a little thicker skin and care less about how many lists we are on. How about we just work on posting valuable information?

  • Shawn Farner

    Or not necessarily posting valuable information – just doing what you want and not caring when someone calls you out on your “incorrect” usage.

  • mack collier

    Justin, agree in principle. However I think if Joe Blogger wants to make a list of the ‘Top Social Media Minds’, he’ll probably feel pressured to add people like Chris to the list, even if he wouldn’t otherwise, simply because he wants the list to be more ‘credible’.

    You’re right, this has all become a popularity contest. Scoble’s post slamming Brogan was written because he knew that the post would get more traction and RTs because it was about Brogan. That’s it.

    I always look at the conversations happening in ‘the fishbowl’ through the lens of ‘how is this going to help my clients?’ or is this something they need to know about? When we talk about ideas, and how to use tools and how to increase effectiveness and production via social media, that’s progressive and something that has value for companies.

    But instead we seem to waste WAY too much time on what INDIVIDUALS think or say or do. That’s partly because our ideas of ‘fame’ and ‘influence’ has become so distorted in this space. The people that are ‘celebrities’ to us, are complete unknowns to the world at large.

    Anyway good post, I am starting to ramble, so I’ll stop here.

  • Adam Kmiec

    Usually, I agree with you. This time, I don’t. While I don’t think Scoble or Chris are 100% in the right, I lean toward Scoble. I see a great deal of value in lists. For one, the help organize content, not unlike tags for blog entries. Prior to lists all we had was Twellow. The lists help me find people of a similar background, experience, location, etc.

    By default, we make lists with everything we do. When we go out to dinner with friends, we’ve made a list, because not everyone is invited. Only those people who have a massively large EGO will care if they are on a list or not. The majority of us, don’t give a hoot, if we’re on a list. It seems to me that those that take Chris’ point of view have egos the size of a planet.

    To me Scoble didn’t slam Chris. What he did though was rare. It was someone else in the industry saying “no, I don’t agree with you, and in fact you are wrong” to another “leader.” Few people would have the balls to openly disagree with someone who has Chris’ following. Why? Because of the backlash. I’m glad Scoble wrote his post. I agree with 99% of it. Lists are a good thing, when you use them for something other than stroking your own ego.

  • Dr.Mani

    Nice. Reminded me of what I read earlier today, in Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth”:

    “In form, you are, and will always be, superior to some, inferior to others. In essence, you are neither superior nor inferior to anyone.”


  • Yann Ropars

    Being a big fan of friendfeed, I have moved away from being glued to twitter as creating lists in FF (all anonymous by the way) have been filling up my streams for quality information. The move of twitter to create lists inside is simply pushing the “ego button” which is one of the pillar for technology adoption (a strategic move). The winner is Twitter. We’ll see a HUGE spike in Twitter traffic by the end of the month and Twitter will be re-Buzzed.

  • Tim J

    Well my main lists so far are private ones: “core”, which means people I don’t want to miss any tweets from when I haven’t time to read the whole stream, and “quiet” which is for people who only tweet occasionally. The purpose of that one is to avoid their tweets being swamped by the more tweetative people I follow, so I actually see them. When I have more lists, I’ll probably mostly use them like classification tags, not as a way of rating people. Musicians, people who post news, people interested in science, etc.

  • Tim J

    I may even have a “people I’m wondering about following” list… Private, obviously.

  • Zahid Lilani

    Young people will not really be happy about the lists and I tend to side with Chris as far as exclusivity is concerned because the feel of not being in someone’s list when you expect to be is not that great.

    Don’t get me wrong, lists are useful but it is not the best thing in the world…

  • Stales

    Here’s a list that NONE of you want to be on….

    Perhaps if we stop looking at lists as a way to promote, inflate, publicize, include or exclude we can begin uncovering a different kind of value.

  • Justin C. Houk

    Your post hit many fuzzy thoughts that have been floating in my brain since lists came out. You are completely correct that lists are able to mirror any possible use we can think of. I have refrained from really diving in because I’m thinking about how I want to use them in a way that matches my values.

    Yes, I said my values, meaning my personal values that I live by. Not Robert’s or Chris’s values, my values. They are free to use twitter in a way that works for them. I hope they do it in a way that matches their personal beliefs but if they don’t that’s OK too. They are exploring.

    My lists will all start small. They will be comprised of people that interact with me, seem like real people, and give value in their tweets. If someone wants to be on my lists they just have to do these things. If I ever run out of space I will be a rich man indeed and will probably reach social media nirvana.

  • Brandon Sutton

    Justin, you nailed it in the last section. I personally don’t really care one way or the other whether lists are public or private. Where I think the issue comes in is the way it is displayed in Twitter, right next to Following and Followers. In my opinion, this can be interpreted as a measurement of influence or worthiness, when in reality, it’s more about a signal of popularity. Popular is not the same thing as smart or creative or innovative. I prefer to look at the content in the posts people submit, not the numbers of followers they have or how many lists they are on when deciding whether following them or listing them will be valuable to me.

    I’m not on any lists, and I really don’t care. I don’t follow a zillion people, and I don’t care that a zillion people don’t follow me. I tweet about things I believe will be valuable to the conversation, and if others agree, they’ll let me know by reaching out, following me, or adding me to a list if they want. Would it be nice to be on some public lists – maybe. But I’m not losing sleep over it. I’m focused on bringing value to the conversation by the things that I write and post.

    As you said at the end, seeing the success of others gives me something to aspire to, and that’s always a good thing. But I don’t aspire to numbers. I aspire to pushing my own thinking and in turn pushing the thinking of clients that I serve.

    Thanks for the post Justin. Really – thanks! :)

  • Stephanie M

    I’m a little underwhelmed by it all.

  • Suzanne Vara


    Bravo!Love this post as lists are a popularity contest and not being on one that you hoped for is discouraging. Is ME being on a slew twitter list going to bring value to my clients? Are people going to like me more and think I am a player in this space because I am on a popular list? I hope that is not how we determine someone’s credibility and acceptance on twitter.

    Twitter lists have shifted the focus to how cool you are instead of what you have to bring to the table.

    Mack Collier says it right: “But instead we seem to waste WAY too much time on what INDIVIDUALS think or say or do. That’s partly because our ideas of ‘fame’ and ‘influence’ has become so distorted in this space. The people that are ‘celebrities’ to us, are complete unknowns to the world at large.”

    The “big names” are celebrities in our world and no where else(which is discouraging in and of itself)as there is tremendous work being done in “our world” that needs to be recognized. Keep the focus on clients and doing great work together and not what freaking list you are on or not on.

  • Yuko Murray (emma_zero)

    Feels like you put into words what was forming in my mind. Who knows what reasons each person has for listing or not listing anyone, anyway. I must say though I may be seeing in people what I didn’t know about before, because of the listing function. LOL

  • Mala Sarat Chandra

    First let me say I enjoyed your post enormously. It is thought provoking and entertaining.

    But wow, so much emotion and argumentation about what is probably the oldest organizational artifact known to mankind – Lists.

    I am a fairly new Twitter user. I am researching SNS as they are a major paradigm shift impacting the way we live, learn, work and play. Before Twitter Lists were introduced, I had a heck of a time following the few relatively prolific people I follow. With Lists, I can now easily sort tweets by topic or source, e.g., technology or business, news or entertainment, family or colleagues. I can choose to read tweets by these lists as frequently as I like. I can choose which to make private and which to make public. I gives me the levers to control my twitiverse.

    I would like Twitter Lists to evolve further to be really useful. For example, give me controls such that my home page does not have to show all tweets, but just the list of tweets I choose to set as default.

    Usage of Lists for self promotion, business leverage, marketing, popularity (or other types of) contests, are inevitable. For Twitter Lists to be really effective for this kind of usage, privacy and security controls have to be improved.

  • Venessa

    i made a little graphic that shares this sentiment – Twitter Lists Demystified

  • ErinMarton

    So funny how quickly the whole “list” thingie has taken off, and I confess, as a narcissistic social media user – I have done my share of pouting. I think I am over it now, but the whole competitive, “how many lists am I on” issue is lingering.
    Although – I just realized that I didn’t include you in my list of Burghers – so, don’t take it personally LOL.
    I will admit – I am shocked about any kind of controversy surrounding the list feature. I mean, anyone who uses a Seesmic or Tweetdeck has most likely divided friends and followers into groups already, we are just making it public. No?

  • Stales

    p.s. My post got cut off so I wanted to make sure I mentioned that this was a GREAT POST!

  • Searchwriter

    What people seem to be missing in this discussion is the weighting factor of Lists for authority ranking purposes. Yes, anyone can include their lesser-known, more niche-oriented friends and discoveries, but those will not “rank” the way the mass-appeal of the Top-10-20-40 Lists will. Seems to me what Twitter is after is another signal for its PageRank proxy.

    I can certainly understand the intent. In a world where there are 50,000 Tweets a minute on a particular subject, how do you know which ones are worth following? Well, that, to me is beside the point. Lists are a lazy way out. As you point out, social media is not about a meritocracy but a plurality of interests. I don;t listen to Top 40 AM radio and would hate to see Twitter become “programmed” that way!

  • Brother Anthony

    Allowing list features is a good thing. As the size of a pool of people grow, there are points from which you need a lens through which to view what’s relevant. It’s good that they allow for lists.

    How people use them is another matter. The good news is that we finally get to see how everyone was already perceiving or judging those they follow. That’s just a little bonus.

    The idea that social networks can ever be fertile ground for better democracy is pretty misguided. The more people invited to a party, the more some will want to be distinguished within the party. The more college grads need a job, the more you think you might need a graduate degree for the job you want.

    What are the lists which leave out the quality, and who follows these or any lists? And where’s Justin Kownacki’s “Ten People No One’s Going to List, But They Should?”

  • Andrew Mueller

    Hi Justin,

    I loved your post and thought that you elequently made your point. While list may make it easier for newcomers to find value in twittter, I also see that list may create a dual class of twitizen and to some extent freeze power structures as they exist today. You might find an Interest in the article I published yesterday that speaks to this topic.


  • John R. Carman

    I’ll probably never create a “People To Follow” list, much as I don’t believe in blogrolls. I believe that, over time, the accumulated links from my blogs and replies on Twitter will reveal a more realistic list of people I would recommend to others. I believe that this is a more natural way for my readers/followers to meet new people and organizations.

    That is not to say that I am against lists, and this post prompted me to start creating a few. I agree with Anthony that they are a way to see how I perceive others, and I am going to give some thought to creating a few lists that tell people as much about me as they do about the people I choose to list.

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  • Searchwriter

    Twitter Lists are not “a good thing.” In fact, the more I think about it, the more the concept of this new social order is a bit sick. A list of friends is one thing, or a ranking of favorite actors or artists, but voting a group of people the world’s greatest authorities on a given topic is simply herd mentality. Popularity does not equal authority (although Twitter would like it to because it adds a whole new dimension of importance o their search engine.) And someone who garners expert status on one subject may be an imbecile or a bigot on another. Yes, good content warrants exposure through higher visibility and optimization. But ranking people by expertise in some kind of social order is a kind of social elitism that should not sit well with any thinking person. .

  • Justin

    Searchwriter: To say that “ranking people by expertise in some kind of social order is a kind of social elitism that should not sit well with any thinking person” is an illogical statement, and a historically flawed one at that. Cultural guardians have decided “who matters” for centuries; that we now have the ability to determine “who matters” to us personally, and to share those determinations with our peers publicly, is the opposite of elitism — it’s an egalitarian entry point to a meritocracy.

    Rankings are also how information needs to be sorted. If we didn’t separate the wheat from the chaff, we’d be incapable of value-based judgments, and every unsupported opinion would be just as valid as every thoroughly-researched one. To presume that one person’s inclusion on another person’s list somehow invalidates everybody else’s point of view, or that it denotes the included person as being infallible across a spectrum of various topics, is to distrust the public’s ability to make those distinctions themselves.

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  • Kathy Colaiacovo

    I really enjoyed this post, and all the comments. It’s interesting to see opposing viewpoints.
    I was given the list access right away and looked at it a bit, but my view is that it is a way twitter is trying to give users an opportunity to group followers in a way that they can easily see what certain people tweet – much the same as you can make a group in tweetdeck or other twitter management systems.
    I look at Twitter as very much being Connections without Expectations and with the list function I am keeping to the same policy.
    If someone puts me on a list – Great, but I am not expecting anything from anyone out there.

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  • Social Media


    Glad to see another Blog using the Amazing Grace Theme (especially) since you've integrated the Disqus comment widget. In case you're tracking such matters, I came to know of you Blog via Amplify so you might want to check it out sometime.

    I'll be back for more.

    - Neil

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  • livefit

    Yet as much furor as they brought to the party, they've dropped just as quickly off the map.

  • Justin Kownacki

    True. Which may be proof that social media also misuses itself, or fails to
    comprehend its own full value.

  • Justin Kownacki

    True. Which may be proof that social media also misuses itself, or fails torncomprehend its own full value.