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Are Lists Good For Social Media?

Twitter has grown exponentially over the past two years and so has the culture that has blossomed around the communications tool. The Twitterverse, through the means of the user, has developed a currency based in thought capital, designated by the few to be spread through the many. As in other cultures, currencies develop and are attributed meaning that change over time.

For example, an early currency of Twitter was the number of followers a user had. The more followers meant the more influential you were, but that seemed to be a fleeting currency, as the purpose of social media isn’t quantity but quality.

Another currency that popped up was the retweet. This still has some value, as it’s a great way to spread information and qualify yourself (by being retweeted) that you have some thought capital to spend.

The most recent, which also means the most discussed, currency is the Twitter List, where you can create lists (public or private) to help navigate through the morass of Twitter or to help your followers learn about others (which kind of negates Follow Friday. But, since our culture is one of habit, we’ll still be seeing Follow Fridays for a while).

I want to qualify the following argument by saying this: Since we’re all still learning about social media in general and these lists in particular, this is just an initial reaction. What one may think today most likely will change tomorrow – especially in such a nascent space. On the face of it, lists appear to be a great tool for discovery. But it also appears to be just another way for people to say (not so much explicitly, but tacitly through the lists they’re on) “Hey, look at me!”

Social media is just like high school and lists are the modern equivalent of the segmentation of the jocks, the nerds, the band kids, the potheads, the Goths, the greasers, the cheerleaders: what/whose list are you on? Social media, as it’s preached, is about community where the sum is greater than the parts. Lists turn that idea on its head by pointing out that the community isn’t as important as the individuals on a list.

There’s a discipline in the communications field that studies how and why we build lists to segregate people in real life, called Constructivism. Constructivism “describes how human perception influences the skillful production and interpretation of a variety of social influence messages (Delia, O’Keefe, & O’Keefe, 1982. The constructivist approach to communication. Human Communication Theory. New York: Harper and Row, 147-91.). Since we put people in lists, we create prototypes and stereotypes, and we try to communicate against the boxes we’ve created for people. Social media is no different and these new Twitter Lists drive this idea home.

Lists create distrust:

I see a list called VIP created by someone I trust. Naturally, I take a look around to see who these VIPs are; there are some very important people on that list, but also some that I would consider the complete opposite of VIP. I now question the list-maker’s decisions, which may lead to me not trusting the content to come from this person in the future.

Lists create segregation:

Constructs are created and people are put into boxes (in this case, lists). When we put people into lists, we are defining them by that list. If I’m on a Brooklyn list, a Jewish list, a musician list, etc, people who don’t know me fall on their prototypes of what it means to be a Brooklyn, Jewish musician. Thus, it sets the stage for biased communication.

Finally, the Twitter list is flawed in the very simple logic that I cannot put together a list of the top 100 whatever because I only follow 500 people. We’re seeing lists out there with those declarative titles, and even though, as someone told me, “It’s the nature of reality,” it’s impossible to create a list that doesn’t bruise someone’s ego or leaves out many qualified people.

While some may argue the reason I’m anti List is because I’m not on any, well, like everyone who plays in the social media space (and life), I just want to be noticed but not defined.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


4 thoughts on “Are Lists Good For Social Media?

  1. Hey Josh -Great post on this topic. I haven't fully explored the list feature yet myself but have seen numerous lists discussed (and found myself on).For me the most practical use of the list would be for objective/factual standards, e.g. Technology journalists, Employees of XYZ Corp., etc where if you're a member of that group or interested in that group it's an easy jump start in using twitter rather than the random searches or only following those you already know in real life.To claim anyone's a best, or make a 'best of' list (at least for me) would be futile as I'm continually impressed by, and learn from, the folks around me. I'd find myself constantly adding folks.Anyone really interested in who I talk to/am interested by would do better to simply check out my tweetstats.Thanks for this post."P"

    Posted by PR Cog | November 3, 2009, 7:17 pm
  2. I don't understand your logic in saying you can't create a Top 100 list from only 500 followers. Isn't the idea to discover new people through your follower's lists, and build from there? From my point of view, the whole point of these lists are to help you better curate your experience and that of your followers. And yes, there will be times when you don't agree with someone's addition on a list, but we all don't agree on everything. For example, there are people I follow on Twitter because they provide value for me in a certain area. But outside that area I may disagree completely with them on something, like if they're a right wing zealot and I'm a lefty weirdo. I'm probably not going to take them off my "social media" list because I don't value their opinions on politics. There are some people who will deal with that choice than others, but I just feel there's too much sensitivity around these lists. But I understand the human psyche is fragile, and this debate will continue, and it may even affect me at some point. But for now, I see this as a good thing for Twitter and for the promotion of signal over noise.

    Posted by Seamus Condron | November 3, 2009, 9:18 pm
  3. Just remember: If no one put you on any Lists, you can make some of your own and put yourself on them. Sure it may be cheap but it is an option.

    Posted by PJ Edwards | November 3, 2009, 9:36 pm
  4. I don't think Twitter lists themselves are the problem, but people's inability to think outside their own preconceptions. That we now have the ability to classify people according to the information or experiences they provide for us is a neutral evolution of the tool. Sure, people may allow those classifications to affect their opinions, but they may just as easily be surprised by the ways those classifications explode their preconceptions, too.

    Posted by Justin Kownacki | November 7, 2009, 7:19 pm

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