New Twitter Lists: Open House or Velvet Rope?

It's a whole new party and that party looks a bit like high school or a private club. It also bears a slightly unnerving resemblance to Old Media. What isif not Graydon Carter's list?
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Twitter has been rolling out its new "lists" feature over the past couple of weeks and the buzz of excitement in the Twittersphere has been palpable. The Internets have resounded with cries of "Game changer!" and "We're all curators now!"

Initially, the idea of Twitter Lists seemed like a total win-win. Active tweeters in the Twitter Open House could instantly become 140-character versions of Arianna Huffington, wielding curatorial power, creating and publishing Twitter Lists called "Fave Fives in Wasilla," and "100 Most Influential Silicon Valley Gardeners," and "500 Most Awesome List Makers." It was a heady feeling.

But then a funny thing happened. Some of that excitement was replaced by a quiet but insistent buzz of anxiety as previously self-confident tweeters suddenly turned into "unlisted" wallflowers, startled and a bit bewildered by the enormity of the unexpected change.

In case you're not already familiar with the feature: you may now create up to 20 lists, each containing up to 500 tweeters. Those lists may be kept private (like "Avatars I Have Secret Crushes On") or, more significantly, made public. Your public Twitter Lists are visible to everyone, whether or not they follow you, and so are other users lists that include you. So now, instead of just following one master list of Twitter accounts that you've (presumably) carefully researched and created, you can now create sub-lists (something that was already possible with third-party programs like Tweetdeck but not with Twitter itself.) You can also -- and this is the real news -- dip into Twitterstreams that other users have created and "bookmark" them by following the entire Twitter List or pick and choose tweeters from them to add to your own lists.

It's a whole new party and that party looks a bit like high school or a private club -- with tweeters already "requesting" to get on lists. (It also bears a slightly unnerving resemblance to Old Media. What is Vanity Fair if not Graydon Carter's list?)

Twitter Lists are clearly a convenient way to organize tweet streams by affinity groups, like location, topic, or expertise. As Twitter founder Jack Dorsey explained at a recent event exploring Twitter and the collective unconscious, he's always been fascinated by maps, grids, and commons. For Dorsey, the new lists transform Twitter into something a little more systematized, something easier to navigate.

But at the same time, Twitter Lists have allowed an element of exclusivity and in-crowd mentality to suddenly flourish among users who seem only too happy to deploy their velvet ropes. Many of the lists being created are named things like "The Top Thought Leaders in Tech," and "The 100 Most Awesome Tech Tweeters" and "Coolest Tech Twitterers" or most simply, "My Fave Tech Tweeters." And so, where previously the only public choice was "Do I or don't I choose to follow you?" now list makers are very publicly judging the value of other tweeters by which lists they include them in, and which lists they don't.

There is also somewhat of a gold rush effect. Industrious list-makers who got the feature in its beta roll out have already flooded the field with lists of their favorites and uploaded them to a new list-aggregating site called Listorious, creating an instant list-gap. Though anyone can upload their lists to Listorious, whose mission, according to CEO Greg Galant, is "to make it easy for people to find the good stuff on Twitter," clearly not everyone will. And some tweeters have friends who create more lists than others, while other tweeters have friends who, for whatever reasons (jobs, perhaps?), haven't had the time or inclination to create any lists of their own.

Because "being listed" is being touted as the new economy of influence, all the hard work users have poured into attracting a Twitter following may suddenly have been in vain if those followers don't get cracking and make lists.

So while some dance cards filled up immediately -- 10000+ lists have sprung up to date listing Ashton Kutcher as a "celeb," 11,000 listing @Mashable, 15,000 listing @BarackObama, and multiple tech lists covering Silicon Valley royalty -- some dance cards remain painfully empty, leading such respected Social Media thought leaders as Chris Brogan to question whether it's a good idea to create something that excludes a significant part of your following.

Thanks to Twitter Lists, there are also several new public metrics that appear on each user's Twitter home page. Before, you only had to worry about how many people you followed and how many followed you back. Now, the stats are much more specific and complex. The new world includes: the number of people who have listed you, the number of people who are following the lists that include you, the lists you yourself have created, the number of lists you are following, and the number of people who are following your lists. It is not only confusing, but also potentially humbling and dispiriting if no one has listed you and no one is following the "awesome" lists you created.

While Twitter Lists will certainly provide useful short cuts, allowing users to benefit from the fruits of other users research and expertise, lists change what was a fundamentally democratic system, creating a "listing class."

The new Twitter economy may very well be the dominance of the list makers with negotiations for quid pro quo, the creation of new Twitter accounts in order to create new lists, or, worse, payment for inclusion in lists.

And perhaps most ominously, you have no control over either what Twitter Lists you are on, or the names of the lists on which you appear. You may consider yourself a serious scholar, for instance, but turn up on a list called "Good for a Laugh." You may be looking for work and turn up on a list called "Slacker Frat Bros." You may end up feeling thoroughly misunderstood. And it's all taking place in public.

Twitter's creators have said that they believe "lists will be a new discovery mechanism" and there is certainly the promise that lists will make the ever-more-crowded Twitter more manageable and bring back some of its serendipity, allowing users to find interesting and valuable new people through recommendations by trusted sources (Trust me -- Ashton Kutcher is a celebrity!) Lists will particularly benefit new users who don't have to spend months digging for gold, looking for other like-minded tweeters, they can simply follow who another user suggests they follow.

Let's hope Twitter Lists don't turn Twitter into a more stratified environment that is dominated by cool kid list-makers, leaving other frustrated and disappointed users standing behind the velvet ropes, on the outside looking in.

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