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Twitter Lists, Track and Broadcasting

I’ve been trying to understand what Twitter lists are good for. Both Twitter’s new retweet feature and the list feature are imports from FriendFeed. Even in its current state, FriendFeed continues to be the R&D department for social media.

The thing I find uninteresting about lists is the fact that they’re mostly static— they simply serve as a kind of personal taxonomy. These Twitter users belong in this category. This is where we begin to feel the loss of track + filters. The assembly of a network of connected micro-messages around a set of keywords and run through a filter does what lists do dynamically and in real time. With the release of Twitter’s streaming API, nicknamed birddog, it’s possible we’ll start to see track-like features return— at least for subsets of the firehose. Manually curated lists at the level of classification are just a replay of RSS readers.

There are those who will say that if you’re using Twitter in a one-to-many broadcast mode, you’re not doing it right. But I think it’s pretty well established that Twitter is ambiguous and flexible enough to accommodate many modes of use simultaneously. Twitter lists strike me as a particularly good tool for news organizations.

If the New York Times or CNN has a team of journalists, photographers, videographers and radio journalists covering a breaking story like the earthquake in Haiti, a Twitter list would be a compact way to deliver coverage. Hyperlinks within the tweets could send readers off to breaking news, in-depth backgrounders and ongoing live conversations. CNN’s list and the New York Times’s list would be differentiated by who was on each coverage team and the editorial approach of each news organization. The list would exist for the duration of the story.

Rather than serving as part of a taxonomy, or classification of Twitter users— the list would define individuals with a common purpose— covering the Haiti earthquake, or the Senate race in Massachusetts. Each news organization might have a set of active lists ongoing at any time. The more specific and real time the list, the more valuable it would be.

Of course, someone might create a list of all the news organizations covering a breaking story. But I think the effect of this would be to dilute the value of the stream rather than enhance it. You could also make the argument that the hashtag and the wisdom of the crowd would ultimately provide equal or better coverage. However, it’s not necessary to choose between one approach and the other. Each will ultimately include elements of the other.

The television medium is destabilizing and being absorbed into the real-time Network. While newspapers and television used to consider the Internet as a medium for the re-purposing and re-use of content, soon the reverse will be true. The real-time Network will be the primary publication vehicle with television and newspapers becoming containers for re-use.

And, of course, I use the word Twitter as a synecdoche. (A specific class name used to refer to a general set of associated things)

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