Fur has been flying this weekend about the nature of celebrity on the internet, more specifically on Twitter. It began as a discussion of authority, when Loic Le Meur wrote a post entitled “Twitter: We Need Search By Authority” and within about a day Jon Wheatley and some other developers had created Twitority, which filters Twitter searches based on the number of followers. That’s a pretty impressive development time, but even faster to arrive was the hue and cry pointing out that popularity does not equal authority. Most proponents of the value of “authority,” including Loic himself, quickly conceded that influence was probably a better word to describe what the number of followers measures, and then that word was picked apart as well as being off the mark. Indeed, labels aside, the idea of filtering in this way bothers many who value the democratic nature of Web 2.0. Robert Scoble decried the idea as patently idiotic, and Charlie O’Donnell had this to say:
It’s laughable…the idea that someone has “authority” because a lot of people pay attention to it. Isn’t that the most anti-Web 2.0 thing you’ve ever heard? Did we forget about the long tail? Wasn’t that the whole point? Level playing field… hear the small voices… excuse me, is this thing on?
Charlie (who is also on advisory board for Web 2.0 Expo New York, by the way) has a point. And at first I thought Loic’s unspoken point might be “don’t judge my need for filter until you’re as popular as I am; see if you can handle the deluge when you have upwards of 15,000 followers,” but as many thoughtful bloggers have discussed over the recent months, Twitter solved the filter problem in its architecture with the idea of asymmetric follow. James Governor defined asymmetric follow here (touched off by some thoughts from JP Rangaswami over a year ago and egged on by Tim O’Reilly). Basically the idea is that by allowing others to follow you without following them, you can maintain a manageable volume of input while still engaging in a conversation that reaches beyond your personal network, because the @user function allows anyone on the network to reach you in context at anytime. What’s at stake here, as James points out, is exactly what Charlie is ranting about: conversation or broadcast? When you become a celebrity in the world of Web 2.0, do you only listen to other celebrities, thereby corrupting the democratic nature of the Web? Or do you actively engage with the interesting but unknown voices? Have the revolutionaries become the establishment?
Perhaps it’s the symmetric followers who are having the most trouble here; those who’ve followed back every follower they’ve gained (as Loic seems to have) find their twitter stream a fire hose. It would be pretty ironic if the seemingly democratic policy of reciprocation is what’s driven this desire for a feature many see as elitist. Of course there are those who would say that symmetric followers have a less than democratic motive; if you’re not reading your tweetstream because it’s overloaded, then why follow back? Is it a tactic to attract and retain followers yourself? I’m sure that every symmetric follower has a different reason for their policy; this is truly an open question.
On the other end of the spectrum are folks like Kara Swisher, who follows only 16 people and has over 4000 followers. Kara’s been getting beaten up lately for using the medium for broadcasting, not listening. First she downplayed Twitter’s importance, saying
With only about six million registered users (with a much lower number of active ones), Twitter gets written about as if it were a mover and shaker extraordinaire, instead of just being what it is: An interesting status-alert start-up that makes zero revenues …
Which garnered replies like these from @stuartcfoster:
Maybe if you actually followed back more than 16 people…you might get want Twitter was about.
Twitter doesn’t really become useful until you follow more people. It’s useless if the conversation has only one side. Not hype.
(BTW, another twitterer, @JPWP, points out to Kara that a client such as Tweetdeck would do wonders for her appreciation of Twitter, advice with which I wholeheartedly agree. The way you interact with the service fundamentally changes when you have it open on your desktop, and in my experience, it’s not until shortly after one installs a client and sets it to automatically launch upon start-up does the user start to “get” Twitter and its value.) [Update: Kara wrote to say she does use several Twitter clients; only her recents updates had been from the Web. I should have looked further back.]
I must admit that my first reaction to Kara’s post was along the same lines as @stuartcfoster and the many others who took her to task. But looking through her tweetstream, at least recently, Kara actually seems to do a good job of replying to messages directed at her. She does appear to be engaged in a conversation, though mostly with those who engage her directly, since the universe she scans remains tiny by Twitter standards.
Perhaps a better measure of how democratic a Twitter celebrity is isn’t the number of people s/he follows, but how often s/he replies to @messages. But in the end it’s difficult and potentially dangerous to draw conclusions about someone’s elitism or lack thereof from just his/her behavior on Twitter. I have no objection to the existence of an influence-based filter, but I personally fall into the camp of those who would be unlikely to use it, at least for some of the examples Loic gave. If I want to figure out if people are having problems with an iPhone upgrade, for instance, I want everyone’s thoughts, not Scoble’s and O’Reilly’s and Loic’s. The point is to get a wide range of opinions, and what’s more, I’m likely to be having more plebian problems. In an apparent non-sequiter, Loic explains in his post that when he complains about a product on Twitter (in this case the absence of the new BlackBerry on Sprint), he is contacted by the company and provided with VIP customer service, whereas a friend with fewer followers did the same with no results. He provides within his own post a good reason for folks like me NOT to use an influence-based filter; his solutions won’t fix my problems. I don’t mean this snarkily; I think Loic means well, and clearly, he’s a good guy to know.
Okay, when I started writing this post I had a totally different point. I had not intended to give my own rant on the issue, but rather to say that this is exactly the kind of topic I would love to see addressed at Web 2.0 Expo in a format I will borrow from the GDC: The Rants Panel. I find this debate interesting, but its true business value, particularly to an enterprise Web 2.0 advocate striving to demonstrate ROI, is limited. We often get proposals for sessions at the conference that are interesting in a “what’s at stake” kind of way, but can be a little “inside baseball.” I love the passion of this community, in fact, it’s truly why I’m here, so I’d like to give topics like this a home, but in a way that leaves more room for the meat and potatoes of how to turn constraints into opportunities. At GDC, the organizers put aside at least one session for 5 or 6 panelists to simply rant, uncensored, on a topic they feel is important. (In the first couple of years, it was often developers ranting about how publishers and the industry at large kill creativity). It’s entertaining, informative, and it spurs debate in the hallways. I think there’s an excellent rant about filters vs. level playing field to be given at Web 2.0, but the question is, what are some other rants that would fit in, and who should give them?
DeWitt Clinton’s post On Fighting the Web Itself seems like a good candidate to me. A discussion of the role of women in the industry as well as at conferences could be another candidate (here I’d love to hear from Kathy Sierra.) Got any other ideas for me? Please add them in comments or hit me up on Twitter. I’m @pahlkadot.