Thursday, October 29, 2009

Your Twitter followers are not your friends

There has been a lot of excitement recently about the fact that Twitter have introduced a lists feature At first glance it seems similar to the Facebook feature where you can make lists of your friends. However, the comparison is not totally valid because Twitter uses the concept of a "follower" which is not the same as the Facebook of "friend". If you make the mistake of confusing your followers for friends, you will be making a big mistake.

Facebook was initially aimed at young people. The conventional wisdom is that it is dangerous for young people to speak with strangers, so the default setting in Facebook is that your updates can only be seen by people that are formally recorded as your "friend". Friendship is a two-way relationship, so in order to record a friendship link both users have to confirm that the friendship exists.

As everyone knows the term "friend" covers a wide variety of relationships. Robert Dunbar famously proposed that people can maintain a maximum number of about 150 real friends. However, a friend on Facebook just means "people whom I don't mind if they read my status updates". This is a very loose definition of friendship and many people who are very open can have hundreds and even thousands of friends on Facebook.

To help people who have large lists of firends, Facebook has a feature called lists. This is a way of recognizing the fact that not all friendship links are the same. For example, I might divide my friends into three lists named "family", "work-colleagues" and "drinking-buddies". This allows me to project a different image to each of the types of "friend". With careful use of the Facebook security features, I can ensure that members of my family will only see updates containing cute pictures of my children, my drinking buddies will see details of my wild revelries and my work colleagues only see updates which contain thoughtful insights in relation to our business. Of course the lists can overlap so that my brother who works for the same company and also joins my in my wild social life will see a complete picture of my activities.

Twitter does not formally record friendship in any way. By default all twitter updates are public and can be seen by anyone. It is possible to place access control on your twitter updates, but hardly anyone does that. Twitter has a concept of "followers". If you record the fact that you follow someone, this simply means that you want updates from that user to appear on the default page shown to you when you log into Twitter.

If any of my friends are on Twitter I normally add them to the list of people I follow - I am sure many of them also follow me. Most people follow this principle so there is a tendency for the "followers" network on Twitter to resemble the "friends" network on Facebook. However, a very significant difference is that while the "follows" relationship can be bi-directional it does not have to be.

Most people follow a similar number of people as who follow them and there is a large overlap between each group, but there are a few notable exceptions to this rule and these exceptions make a big difference to the overall structure of the network. For example, I follow the Irish Times feed to get notified of news stories, but the Irish Times does not follow me (the feed is probably produced by a software program rather than a real person anyway). Many influential Tweeters significantly change the flow of information through the Twitter network. For example, the software pioneer Mitch Kapor has 14,037 followers but is only following 322 people. Similarly the publisher Tim O'Reilly is only following 583 people but has 1,243,295 followers. It seems that there is probably a limit to how many people you can follow (the actual number depends on how much time you spend on Twitter), but there is no limit on the number of people who can follow you.

I created the following lists which grouped the people that I follow by the reason why I follow them. Obviously the lists are not mutually exclusive (e.g. I put any Irish journalist on both the journalists list and the paddies list):
  • Journalists - this list contains professional journalists and official newspaper feeds (actually I originally mis-spelt this as "Jornalists" but I fixed it for fear of getting a reaction like Gordon Brown). I doubt very much if any of these people follow me back.
  • Paddies - people who have some association with Ireland. Some (but not all) of these are friends of mine and might follow me back
  • Gadgets - people who tweet about cool gadgets (mainly a subset of journalists)
  • Linux - people who tweet about Linux and open source software
  • Thinkers - people who write thoughtful articles. I know this is a list I might get some stick about, it could also be called a list of people whose opinion I value.
  • IBMers - people who work for IBM
  • Lotus Related - people who tweet about Lotus products and/or social software in general
As I was playing with the lists interface I realized that you could put people on lists that you are not following. I leveraged this fact to unfollow some of the official IBM feeds (since they are still in my ibmers feed I can easily check them out whenever I want and I don't need to clutter up my home page with too many boring work related Tweets). It is also possible to follow a complete list in one step. I used this to follow Robert Scoble's list of the most influential in technology. This allows me to effectively delegate to Scoble the job of finding influential people writing about technology.

When I initially joined Twitter I was anxious to build up a network and clicked the "follow" button quite liberally. As a result there were a few people on my follow list that I didn't really know who they were and hence I could not decide which list they should be on. I decided that it was probably best to unfollow these people. After this exercise, I see that of the people 157 who follow me, I follow 100 of them back. I think that this probably a good ratio, because it is not good to be in a clique where all of my friends are also friends of each other and we only talk to each other.

In general the lists feature makes Twitter more useful, but most importantly the exercise reminded me on the key difference between friends and followers.

Update: I just found this useful article which gives advice on how you can use Twitter Lists.

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