Are Twitter lists the new blogrolls?

Twitter is gradually rolling out lists, which let individuals create sets of twitter users they follow, and allow others to follow lists. I’m looking forward to the adoption of twitter lists, to all users and to clients, because they will help manage attention when following lots of people and find other interesting folk to follow. But I wonder how long the “lists” will last as a social game- will they stay interesting, or will they become 2010’s version of the blogroll?

In the early days of blogging, bloggers developed a practice of listing their favorite blogs in the sidebar of their own. This was a practice that fostered recognition, making visible community ties (political bloggers would link to those of like persuasion; tech bloggers to other tech blogs, etc) and reinforce emerging status hierarchy relationship (as smaller blogs linked to bigger blogs, but bigger blogs didn’t link down). For a time, blogrolls were the subject of social contention and squabbles about who linked to whom.

But over time, the attention to blogrolls died down. To some extent, this may be due to the weakening of blogs and their linkages as a (very loose) social network with the rise of explicit social networking services, and social messaging which weaves realtime lightweight social links among bloggers perhaps better than anything on the blog.

But I suspect that blogrolls may have died before and regardless of these other trends, because there was another problem – the information was static. A blogger carefully composed a list of their favorite blogs, and then stopped paying attention, while blogs moved, bloggers retired, changed subjects, and the world otherwise moved on. There were tools that made it easier to update blogrolls, but they didn’t help – the fundamental problem is that people don’t update lists.

Today, as Twitter gradually rolls out the feature, early users are making lists to highlight the top people to follow in various categories. Like blogrolls, there are social dynamics – lists reinforce and help create prestige hierarchies. Presumably there will be preferencial attachment, as users who appear on lists will gain more followers, who will put them on their own lists. Lists are a competitive social game, with users competing for attention. The question is whether they will remain and grow in value, or fade like blogrolls did.

Twitter lists have a major potential advantage over blogrolls. If users use them actively to manage their own attention, then they will be motivated to keep the lists current, since non-interesting people will clutter the followers own stream. It will be interesting to see how lists will continue serve those dual roles: managing attention and curating lists for public audiences. Will the criteria for display be the same as the criteria for personal use? Will the very early adopters, who are using lists for display, keep them up?

Also, how will the asymmetry of Twitter lists affect use over time? A list is very different from a group, which establishes mutual visibility among its members – lists don’t seem to foster connection. A user can subscribe to another user’s list, and there is nothing mutual about that gesture. Now, the asymmetry of Twitter’s social model has had wonderful social results, in that it enables the gradual creation of social linkages without the obligation of mutual friending, and therefore helps the network grow and helps people discover others. The asymmetry of lists seems odder – people are seen in each other’s company without any relation.

As I mentioned, I’m eagerly looking forward to the broad rollout of lists – I’ve been “dunbarred” for a while – I see interesting new people often, but it’s hard to follow new people without better tools for managing my own attention. Just personally, I’m less eager for another status game. I care about who’s interesting, not who’s famous, and don’t find it intrinsically interesting to pursue fame. Will there be new social games for lists, or will it be primarily a fame game? (which is compelling for lots of people, just not me so much).

Profile-based social networks hit a wall, because there’s a limited amount of interest in static information, and people tend not to keep them up to date (perhaps more interesting to teenagers who need social self-definition). Streams are much more interesting because the now is always changing.

Will Twitter’s list pass the Delicious Test test of successful social software ecosystems, that it has value for the individual and gains more value with more users? Will it be temporarily interesting, like a blogroll or a profile, or have ongoing interest, like a stream?

Time will tell.

Update: several people have observed in Friday Twitter conversation that the lists people use to manage their own attention are more likely to be private, and the subject-matter focused lists that people use for display will be more likely to be public. If this trend plays out, this makes it less likely that the feature will pass the Delicious test over time, since people will be more likely to maintain the private lists that they need for their own use than the public ones.

41 thoughts on “Are Twitter lists the new blogrolls?”

  1. Very interesting analysis here. I sometimes catch up on a big batch of tweets at once, rather than check in all the time — so when I first saw the list feature, I mostly thought it would be really nice to group the people I follow by subject matter, making it easier to scan through a coherent sub-feed of more manageable size, within the larger Twitter feed. It’s a feature I’ve been hoping for awhile now would eventually be implemented, for that very reason. But I really like your insights on the social dynamic of lists, as well, and think a lot of your observations are spot-on.

    On the “asymmetry” of lists: it seems like over time, there may be somewhat of an equilibrium effect? People who have been categorized on the lists of others can use that list to “fill in the gaps,” so to speak, by following (and engaging with) other people that tweet about similar topics? Then again, I think my own use of Twitter is a little skewed, in that I try to keep it “on topic” — so most of the lists I’ve been added to are already populated by other characters in the same in the universe. In any case, thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Excellent post, Adina.

    I’ve been thinking about the possible uses and limitations of Twitter lists too (My post:

    You ask whether Twitter lists will “remain and grow in value.” I think that depends, in part, on how dynamically Twitter supports them, and how well they get supported by popular Twitter tools like Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop.

    For instance, even if a List creator goes to the trouble of regularly pruning and adding to a List, will those changes propagate to List subscribers? Will your Twitter account automatically add friends (and potentially drop them, too) to correspond to the updates? If so, that would be very cool — and a big incentive to subscribe to Twitter lists. If not, then I agree, this would start to look blogroll-ish

    – Amy Gahran

  3. For what it’s worth, I had a blog roll for a while. It was nice, not sure anyone clicked the links though. But you’re right – I didn’t update it. Ultimately, I decided that the people I linked to in my actual blog posts were more representative of my “blog roll” than the static list I maintained.

    The Twitter corollary would be those I retweet, I suppose. But I think that unlike blog rolls, Lists will serve exactly the attention purpose you outline: “If users use them actively to manage their own attention, then they will be motivated to keep the lists current, since non-interesting people will clutter the followers own stream.”. I already had FriendFeed Lists for that, and I’ll likely set my Twitter Lists up the same way.

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