Biz Stone and Transparent Opaqueness

On the heels of the recent brouhaha over Twitter’s Suggested User list, Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s founders, tries to give the appearance of clearing things up for us.

First, let’s briefly recap recent events.

sourgrapesDave Winer cried about a bunch of nobodies getting on the list in lieu of him and all his friends who feel entitled to be at the top of any internet-related list.  Rogers Cadenhead put another hilarious, mostly unrelated, beat down on Dave.  I was amused by the differences between Dave’s manifest point and his barely if at all concealed latent point.  I also mentioned that I don’t like the Suggested Users list because it is just another example of the harmful gatekeeping that virtually destroyed the blogging movement.

So let’s examine Biz’s post.

He noticed that a lot of users sign up, but don’t follow anyoneWell, Biz follows a whopping 182 people, out of 256,987 followers.  So maybe he needed some ideas?  And he’s not alone.  Many people, particularly those who already had a relatively high profile in the blogosphere before joining Twitter, follow very few people.  It’s also easy as following down (pun intended) to find people to follow on Twitter, by searching by keywords, finding “follow me” links on blogs and other websites or viewing the public timeline.  Now getting people to follow you back, well that can be a tougher chore.

So let me begin by saying that I don’t buy for one second the argument that this list was designed to help the newbie find some Twitter buddies.  This absurd argument is the foundation on which the defense of the Suggested User list is based.

Let’s continue.

Some dude at PBS asked for transparency.  Well, he may have asked for it. . . .  But, hey, those PBS people are plenty smart.  I can’t imagine what the explanation would be if someone from Spike TV had asked.

So how do they pick the list?  Well, it’s like the staff of a bookstore recommending books.  OK, but why couldn’t the Twitter staff actually roam the Twitter aisles and make some #FollowFriday recommendations?  182.  One hundred and eighty two.

And, of course, “there’s more to it than that.”

It seems their Chief Scientist (that’s a cool job title; almost as cool as Plaxo Privacy Officer) wrote a program that scans active Twitter accounts for. . . “a bunch of key ingredients,” such as:

1. How much of your Profile is filled out.  Well, there’s your time zone, a “one line bio,” a home page URL, your location and a picture.  Call me silly, but I’m not seeing a lot of distinguishing criteria to be mined there.  I’m going to call this one a head fake.

2. Certain indications that the account is interesting to others in some respects.  This, obviously, means number of followers and possibly number of ReTweets.  So we are going to once again confuse popularity with intelligence and influence.  The more followers you have, the more sycophantic ReTweets you’re going to get.  So we’re back to number of followers.  Sorry, but I just don’t think that’s a valid criteria of value.  And it’s certainly not evolutionary.  I would have expected Twitter to come up with something better than that.

3. A few other signals.  Now, that’s transparency if ever I’ve seen it.

Once this list is generated, Biz and some other Twitter people look at it to determine which users are list-worthy.  Biz mentions a couple of things they consider.  “Is the account a good introduction to Twittering for a new user?”   OK, that’s a good one.  “Does the person or organization running the account have a fairly wide or mainstream appeal?”  See, we’re right back to popularity again.

It all comes down to popularity.

Twitter is not paid to include people on this list.  Thank goodness.  That would open another can of worms.

And it works beautifully.  After that question raising, if not exactly eye-opening, explanation, Biz concludes that this little system “makes Twitter more relevant and valuable to users.”  Um, OK.  I’m thinking it’s really valuable to those on the list.  It may be valuable to Twitter.  The newbie?  Not so much.

A Beautiful Math.  But we shouldn’t worry about people on the list getting a follower windfall.  Because while “Suggested Users are getting more followers because they are suggested. . . that doesn’t mean everyone else is getting fewer followers.”  Actually, statistically it probably does.  But I’m not lobbying to be on the list.  I am questioning the legitimacy and value of the list.

So what do you do to get on the list?  Why, fill out your profile, silly.  Or be Oprah.