Making Twitter Lists more useful with filtering

Sometimes you don’t want EVERYTHING, just what you want. (Image by ervega via Flickr)

Today Twitter has begin a broad rollout of a new feature, Twitter Lists. The feature had been available only to a select group of beta users, but product manager Nick Kallen tweeted yesterday,Currently, 25% of all users have Lists.” I don’t have access to Lists yet, but I expect it’s coming soon.

The point of Twitter lists is relevant discovery: It’s an easy way to find and follow Twitter users you might not otherwise know about, but would be interested in. However, you might not be interested in everything (or even most things) a given Twitter user in a list has to say. This is more likely if you’re more interest in topics than people. In this case, Twitter lists might deliver more noise than signal.

But I think if you use a good tool like Tweetdeck for accessing Twitter (rather than just the Twitter site, which has always sucked for usability), you can combine Twitter Lists with filtering to end up with something very useful indeed, especially for staying abreast of news or topics…

As far as I understand it, Twitter Lists are defined groups of Twitter accounts. If you follow a list, you automatically follow all the accounts in that list. Kallen described it this way: “For example, you could create a list of the funniest Twitter accounts of all time, athletes, local businesses, friends, or any compilation that makes sense.”

…Well, that kind of list would be useful in some cases, but in many others I think it may not be what Twitter users or others are looking for. That’s because people don’t have one-track minds.

People who use Twitter most effectively tend to post about a lot of different topics that interest or affect them. Generally, Twitter accounts that only post about one topic tend to be more about publication than conversation, and that gets boring in social media.

For instance, many journalists follow me on Twitter because I have a lot to say about journalism. But I also tweet about my former abode Boulder, and my new town Oakland. And I occasionally mention other topics I love, like zombies, polyamory, my recent experience with knee surgery. Plus I cover live events via Twitter, too.

…Yeah, I tweet a lot. And not everyone who follows me is interested in everything I talk about. That’s fine for some folks, and not for others. And that’s pretty typical.

Someone who’s interested in zombies might decided to create a Twitter List of people who tweet about zombies. Right now, near Halloween, that would probably be a long list indeed. And I’d bet that most of those zombie tweeters would also be tweeting about a lot of other stuff.

So if you’re only interested in tweets about zombies, then the smart thing to do would be:

  • Designate a group in Tweetdeck based on the zombie Twitter List (see the problem with this, below)
  • Display tweets from that group in a column.
  • Use Tweetdeck’s filter function on that column to display only tweets from that group that include “zombie” or “zombies.”

That way, you’d only see relevant tweets from the selected list of Twitter users.


Sticking with this example: If you use my strategy, you’d be viewing zombie tweets only from a selected group of users (and not from anyone who uses that keyword). Thus you’d avoid the growing problem of keyword tweetspam — when spammers post spam tweets that include keywords which anyone would see in a Twitter search. That gets really annoying, especially for trending topics and other popular search terms or hashtags.

In fact, the Twitter user convention of hashtags arose in part as a way to curate the quality of tweets about a topic. Twitter users who use hashtags when discussing topics or events generally tend to be especially dedicated to the topic or community — and often just better (or at least more experienced) at using Twitter.

The problem is, anyone can include a hashtag in a tweet. Which is why spammers start bombarding hashtags that get popular.

Also, hashtags can be “hijacked” by people who wish to disrupt ongoing discussion or coverage of a topic or event. For instance, often hashtags related to healthcare reform or climate change get heavily used by people who oppose action on both those topics. They’ll post rude or otherwise disruptive tweets that include the hashtag in order to make it difficult or unpleasant for people trying to have a civil ongoing discussion.

However, if you’re starting from a defined Twitter List and then filtering by keyword or hashtag, you’d never see spammy or disruptive tweets.

Keeping up with changing lists? I don’t know yet whether additions and deletions made to a Twitter List after you follow that list are automatically reflected in your own Twitter friends list (the people you follow). That kind of updating could be useful to keep up with a shifting array of recommendations or players. However, it could also be abused by spammers or other nefarious characters. I’ll experiment with that and report back later.


Combining Twitter Lists with keyword filtering would be great, IF: Tweetdeck or other sophisticated Twitter tools (Like Seesmic Desktop and Hootsuite) allowed you to automatically import a Twitter List as a group. As far as I can tell, they don’t do that yet.

So this brilliant idea of mine doesn’t really work well yet. Because you’d have to follow a Twitter List and then manually select those Twitter friends to create a Tweetdeck group. And then you’d have to apply your term-based filtering to the column for that group.

I just checked out help files for Tweetdeck, Seesmic Desktop, and HootSuite. So far none of them allow you to import a Twitter List as a group. I’d expect, they’ll add that automatic feature soon (nudge nudge), because Twitter Lists are likely to be popular — and maybe even supported directly via the Twitter API.

In the meantime, keep my filtering strategy in mind. It’ll work — it’s just clunky.

ALSO: If you create Twitter lists: Suggest filtering terms (formatted as a boolean “OR” search query). This will make it easy and fast for your List subscribers to filter for exactly what you intend your list to focus on.

…What do you think of my strategy? Any corrections, suggestions, or updates? Please comment below.

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12 thoughts on Making Twitter Lists more useful with filtering

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  4. I definitely agree with some of your concerns regarding Twitter lists, however, I also see them as infinitely useful in certain situations. For example, most of my work deals with Internet filtering and issues of free speech online. When the feature first rolled out, my initial thought was that I would love to see other people’s lists of censorship combatants (or the like) and follow those. Sure, we may not share all the same views or interests, but it IS in my best interest, work-wise, to follow any and every account with even the slightest focus on Internet censorship (another thought is that I can take the recommendations from those lists and create a superlist on the subject).

  5. Thanks Jillian

    I agree that many people enjoy the serendipity of exposure to the complete range of interests of relevant people. Sometimes there may be more overlap.

    That said, I know many people who don’t like Twitter at all because they don’t like hearing about stuff they’re not already interested in. That’s just human nature. These people prefer a guided, filtered approach to the information they get through any channel.

    Regardless of whether we think that preference is a good thing or not doesn’t really matter. It is what it is.

    The point is, should the way Twitter’s functionality appeal *only* people who enjoy broad serendipity, or should it also offer strong options for people who prefer a guided, filtered experience?

    Personally, I think it would be smart for Twitter to offer both kinds of experiences. Doing so would broaden their market. Also, having that option might be a useful form of “Twitter training wheels” for people who want to start slowly with social media, and can’t stand the firehose.

    It’s generally not good business to try to tell users what they “should want.” It’s more effective to try to work with what they *do* want.

    – Amy Gahran

  6. Hi Amy –

    To answer your question, “should the way Twitter’s functionality appeal *only* people who enjoy broad serendipity, or should it also offer strong options for people who prefer a guided, filtered experience?”

    …I don’t think I agree with you. What I love about Twitter is its sheer simplicity and while I, like you, recognize that not everyone is on that boat with me, I don’t (like you) think that it’s Twitter’s responsibility to please everyone. Just like MySpace and Facebook both exist to please the different segments of people who prefer one over the other for whatever reason, so should Twitter remain true to its roots.

    Additionally, like you mentioned, platforms like Tweetdeck *do* exist to allow filtering – why should Twitter replicate that?

  7. Hi, Jillian

    Yes, it’s not Twitter’s responsibility to “please everyone.” However, the introduction of Lists indicates that Twitter does recognize that a lot of existing and potential Twitter users desire features that support a more guided experience to Twitter. I don’t think they would have gone down the Lists road at all if they didn’t want to be more inclusive on that front.

    It seems to me that by keeping the content that Twitter transmits limited to 140 char, so that even people whose only access to Twitter is via bare-bones text messaging on the most limited cell phones, indicates their intention to be inclusive for the broadest possible audience.

    Also, in my article, I was talking about the keyword/hashtag-based post filtering being handled on the *client* side (i.e., via Tweetdeck), and not directly through Twitter.

    The missing link at this point is that, to my knowledge, Twitter clients don’t yet support importing Twitter lists as groups.

  8. This is, of course in response to your last comment (like on my blog, your comment threading stops at 3!)

    I suppose I hadn’t thought of Lists as delivering a guided experience to Twitter as much as I had thought of them as a sort of “Twitteroll” (akin to a blogroll). In other words, my personal view of them was less as guiding the Twitter user experience and more as providing an additional feature that would take onus off the celebrity of Twitter (e.g. Twitter’s “people we think you should follow” list that comes up when one signs up for a new account).

    Being inclusive to a broad audience in terms of sheer accessibility (e.g. access through SMS) is one thing though; “dumbing” Twitter down is another.

    Just my two cents!

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