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Guest post: Lists – Twitter’s magic bullet?

Working with Twitter can occasionally feel like trying to gather the dividing brooms in Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Sure, it’s great to have lots of followers and to hold all these conversations, but as the Twitter feed relentlessly slides by, just how is it possible to keep up with everyone? Jon Collins explains.

The answer lies in Lists, a simple but powerful capability built into Twitter. Lists work pretty much as you would expect. You can select any Twitter user – even someone you don’t follow – and add them to a list, which can be public or private.

That’s all there is to it.

You can use lists to organise your Twitter interests in a variety of ways – for example, you can create a list of news sites, or comedians, or owners of Bugattis, whatever takes your fancy.

When used in parallel with a tool such as Tweetdeck, it becomes relatively straightforward to organise your information feeds, as columns. Each list has its own URL so it can be set up as a shortcut, if you want to have the occasional glance at what your football team is up to.

Lists really come into their own when using Twitter as more than just an information source – to enable conversation and collaboration.

In my own situation, for example, I have several lists built around people I am interested in speaking to. One contains a shortlist of about 150 people whose opinions I rate, built around where technology is having an impact on business or society – my day job. Another contains a few hundred people who I enjoy talking to, for whatever reason: that’s more for traditionally social purposes. I then have a variable number of lists, each based on needs of specific clients, or topics I am looking into at the time.

I keep all of my lists private, for no other reason than I change them quite regularly. Generally, if someone I don’t know engages me in conversation and seems reasonable, I will add them; every now and again I will weed out people who are no longer active, or who are less relevant.

I suppose that I could have public lists called something like “People I rate” but, well, I just haven’t. To me, lists are there for a specific purpose – to help me through my day. There’s no more to it than that!

So, what happens to everyone I follow, who isn’t on a list? The main Twitter stream remains, as a Tweetdeck column, alongside all the others. I might miss some things that are said, but that’s no different to walking into a a bar and seeing some friends.

But what has gone, has gone. Indeed, the best analogy for Twitter, for me remains the line from VMware’s Chief Technologist @joebaguley – “Imagine you are in a giant bar…”.

There’s a deeper point here. When many organisations start dabbling in social engagement, they decide to be on Twitter without too much thought about the ramifications, as if buying a pencil is the key to becoming an artist. Sure, it helps but there’s a bit more to it than that.

When discussing such things with clients, I talk in terms of stakeholder engagement: key to making the most of social networking tools is first understanding the stakeholders – the people (inside and outside the organisation) that should be engaging, and second to understand the nature of each engagement.

It will come as no surprise that I think of my own lists in terms of stakeholders: engaging without this understanding would be akin to wandering up to random strangers in the pub.

Of course this is exactly what we sometimes do, at least on Twitter, as we “follow” strangers or chip in on conversations. At least with lists we have a mechanism to bound this effort – to continue the pub analogy, it’s like being able to create self-defined anterooms, each of which is a lot more controllable.

Yes, Twitter can appear like a fire hydrant but, with a bit of forethought, lists go a long way towards minimising the problems this can create.

About the author
jon-collinsJon Collins (@jonno) is founder and principal advisor at Inter Orbis, set up to research the impact of technology on business, society and culture. He has authored a number of books on technology and music, and is currently working on a fictionalised biography of the violinist, Paganini.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

3 Comments

  1. I’m curious about whether you have people on your lists that you don’t actually follow – using lists as a way of keeping your main twitter stream clean – or if you just use them to segment the people you follow into more manageable chunks?

    I don’t personally, but I can see attractions in some cases, and know people who do. What do you think of the practice?

    • When I’m researching information on behalf of clients, I may well add people to lists that I don’t personally follow simply because they may not be of interest to me personally or in my own research – for example I might have a list of people taking about stem cell ethics (I don’t). When the work for that client is done, it is easier to simply delete a list (or ignore it for the time being) than unfollow people – the latter could also send out an unnecessary message!

      Of course there is nothing to stop me then following people that I have listed in this way, but the list-without-follow offers a useful half-way house.

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