How Twitter’s new Lists feature will dramatically impact follower count

Twitter is great, and like millions of others I’m a big fan of the service. Many people are worth following. In my case this includes of a great number of personal friends, but also a big number of media reporters, tech bloggers, scientists and politicians. With the growing number of people to follow, it gets harder every time to keep track of all those messages. To get a more organized view, it would be a great idea to group these people into various categories, so that related posts are shown together.

For quite some time, many Twitter-clients offered some functionality to create groups of people. However, this resulted in a less then ideal situation. For starters, these groups you created in one particular client are not portable across different clients, let alone be visible on the Twitter website. This meant that in order to sync them up between your mobile and desktop, you had to use the same client on both your iPhone and your Mac, which had to support some form of group syncing, and you had to remember to sync between the clients from time to time. Many people choose to use different clients though (such as in my case Tweetie on the iPhone, and Nambu on the Mac), or just use the well designed Twitter website when sitting at the desk, so this does not provide a valid solution for them. Furthermore, there was no way to see how other people categorised their Twitter-contacts so you could learn from them, nor could others see the efforts that you put into ordering your Twitter-users.


Twitter adds Lists

To provide a solution for this problem, Twitter recently added a new feature called Lists. As the name implies, it allows you to group people into Lists, which can be given a name to reflect the category. As usual when Twitters adds a new feature to the service, they though this one out very cleverly. The Lists are shown on your Twitter-page once you log into site, so you can easlity select them for viewing the respective tweets.

But it doesn’t stop there. Twitter made the Lists functionality a part of their APIs, so that developers of Twitter-clients can easily integrate them into their programs. This means that the same Lists of people are available across all mobile and desktop clients that support them (many already do, and all others are expected to follow quickly), and on the website. True portability of categories!


Lists are public

However, what makes the implementation really great is that you can also choose to make your Lists publicly visible on your profile page. Others could have a peak at the kinds of people you follow, and likewise, you can browse trough the Lists of the people that you find interesting. Chances are higher that you’ll discover some interesting new people when browsing trough their Lists that interest you, rather than wading trough (often) long unorganised listings of the people they follow.

What’s really great though is that you can also subscribe yourself to the Lists of others. These Lists will simply be shown on your Twitter page alongside your own lists, and they appear in your Twitter-clients. The original creator manages the List, and any updates or changes will also immediately be visible to you. This opens up many possibilities of specialized Lists of people or subjects that can be created for many people to enjoy.

Twitter even added a syntax for refering to a List so you can mention them in a tweet, consisting of the user name, followed by a slash and the List name, like @JorgK/mac. Clicking on such a link will forward you to this user’s List page.

The number of people that put you in a List is now shown in the upper right corner of your Twitter page, next to the usual “following” and “followers” count. Clicking this number forwards you to a page showing the users and the names of the categories they assigned you to.


Am I following you?

Twitter choose to allow you to add people you are not “following” to your Lists as well. This means that you can create a group and add users to it, without their tweets clogging up your regular timeline of tweets. This has proven to confuse some Twitter users, as they falsly assume that they have to “follow” someone first, before being able to add them to a List. That’s not the case.

This also means that it is possible to “unfollow” people you have added to a List. Unfollowing them means that your default timeline on your Twitter client or on the Twitter web site does not show their tweets anymore. It’s very likely that many people would prefer this to happen for certain accounts after they have them grouped into an appropriate category. After all, the whole purpose of this List thing is to reduce chaos, right?


Losing track on how many people follow you

On Twitter, the number of people following a user often says something about the relevance of this user, or their popularity. Many people appreciate having a high follower count (even though some would deny so when asked).

As stated above however, it is no longer necessary to “follow” someone in order to read their tweets, once you have grouped them into a List. Once people will start realising this, the number of “followers” will likely decrease. That is: the number showing as the follower count on Twitter. One could argue if this number then still represents the actual number of people subscribing to your posts.

Although it’s easy to argue that adding up the number of followers and the number of Lists that you appear in will result in an accurate number of people reading you, this does not hold true. As explained above, people can subscribe to Lists created by others. So even though you might appear in an x number of Lists, many more people could be using these Lists as their starting point to reading your tweets.

There is no way of knowing how many people access a List that includes you, unless you visit your Listed page, and manually add up all of the followers for all of the lists.


Confusing times

Twitter has made the once clear definition of a “follower” more vague by adding the Lists feature. Most will agree that someone who put you in a List is technically following you, even though they might not be following your Twitter-definition-wise.

Two independent numbers are now shown on your Twitter page (“followers” and “listed”), but as explained above, the listed number might not show the total number of people using a List that contains your account.

Also, some people do not clearly understand that they don’t need to “follow” someone before being able to file them in a List.


What about this solution?

Twitter needs to clear up several things. Allow me to propose the following.

  • It should unify the two ways that people can now subscribe to someone’s posts. This could be done by creating a List called “default” for every user, which includes the people they are following but have not placed in a specific List.
  • It needs to eliminate the confusion surrounding the term “following” that has now risen. Due to the popularity of the term, and the strong association with the Twitter service, I suggest calling the procedure of placing people in a List “following them in a List”.
  • As a result, the number of “followers” should reflect this. It should include the people that are following you in their “default” List, the people that put you in a specific List, and the people that subcribe to any of these Lists that include you.
  • The “listed” number is still relevant and should still be shown. After all, it shows the number of people that have gone trough the trouble of assigning you to a specific category. This may mean something, as they not just added you to their default lists of people to follow. Next to this number of Lists, a number of the total number of people subscribed to these Lists should be shown in parentheses, like: 56 (134).


Conclusion

Twitter’s continued innovation is very much appreciated. In the last months, they added a structurized and very streamlined way to retweet messages, they added very sophisticated geo-tagging functionality, and made some promising deals with companies like Google and LinkedIn to better integrate Twitter into other services.

Likewise, Lists is a very welcome new functionality that adds a lot of usability improvements to the Twitter experience. However, it does confuse users, as some previously easy to understand concepts such as follower count are now not as easy anymore. Furthermore, it might negatively affect (especially high-profile) users, as the number they have used for years now to reflect their popularity might go down.

Both issues should be relatively easy to resolve. Let’s hope the folks at Twitter will find the time to do so.

The author can be found on Twitter as @JorgK. His Lists can be found at @JorgL/lists.

Update December 16, 2009: Bas Westerbaan (@bwesterb) has posted an article on his blog describing a mechanism on how to count all unique Twitter-followers, including those that have filed you in a List.

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