Twitter lists one year on: useful, but only as a niche tool for geeks and developers

When Twitter lists were added in October 2009, they were, rightly, regarded as reflecting the tendency of Twitter to supplement RSS as a source of news. But a lot of rather naive hope was placed in them: many commenters thought they would somehow become miraculous source of new 'online serendipidity', to use a frequently read, yet utterly meaningless expression popular with online journalists; this display of enthusiasm on Poynter Online is fairly typical of what was being written about Twitter lists a year ago:

Their ease of use and additional features could shake up the way Twitter is used altogether, adding new elements of customization, discovery and curation. This makes Twitter Lists something for every journalist, editor and news organization to keep a keen eye on.

RSS offers a granularity that is missing in Twitter lists

I still like the convenience of RSS, which gives me greater control over what news I do or don't read, than a Twitter list:

A short explanation of RSS and how it helps you save time reading the web. Twitter doesn't offer the granularity of RSS, which is effectively like choosing which newspapers and publications will be delivered to you—but online and wirelessly instead of on paper—leaving you free to choose what to read, to read later, or not to read in your feeds.

I often think of Twitter news lists as the online equivalent of television—which I must admit I hate—because when you subscribe to a Twitter list, you are committing yourself to having everything that somebody else has decided to thrust at you landing in your Twitter 'inbox': subscribing to RSS seems more akin to what our parents did when they chose which newspapers were put on their doormat every day: in the same way, RSS allows me a degree of granularity in what I choose to read that Twitter lists (or, in the vast majority of cases, following individual Twitter users, for that matter) does not give.

I currently follow only forty-three Twitter users, and most of those are either friends or people I know personally or with whom I have engaged in extended online exchanges; I've added just a few technology bloggers to that list because their tweets have consistently warranted my reading them regularly; and I certainly wouldn't have the time to add more if I meant to read their posts. And unless I want to know what's happening, literally, right now, in which case nothing beats a Twitter search, I rely on my chosen RSS feeds to keep abreast of news.

I've continued relying on my Google Reader account for news and haven't subscribed to any Twitter lists: I would in all likelihood spend far more time trying to dig up any valuable content on them than I do with the already not inconsiderable number of hours I spend daily on Google Reader. Purely for the sake of experimentation, I have created a few 'test' Twitter lists of my own, but have found them a poor source of genuinely useful content: I find myself regularly reading only one of those lists, @donaldjenkins/tech, in which I've included Twitter accounts of people I have found interesting sources of information on tech. But of course, like me, a lot of them tweet about non-tech stuff a lot of the time, and unlike with RSS, which gives you the opportunity to choose exactly which content of one specific blogger or newspaper to which you want to subscribe, subscribing to someone's tweets or to a Twitter list, at this point in time, is an all-or-nothing choice. Lists are also polluted by frequently irrelevant @replies that are, in practice, tedious to eliminate from the flow, regardless of where you're actually reading the content: in a number of cases, they actually constitute the overwhelming majority of a Twitter account-holder's content.

Twitter lists' lack of granularity and relevance has been compounded by Twitter's bizarre implementation of the feature—mirrored, in this instance by many third-party developers in the Twitter ecosystem. Thus Tweetie for Mac, which is the 'official' Twitter desktop application, doesn't support lists. Echofon for Mac ('the minimal yet powerful Twitter app that syncs unread Tweets with your iPhone'), another popular desktop Twitter client, doesn't either. Even more curiously, Kiwi for Mac, which describes itself as 'a Twitter client with tabs, accounts, themes, windows, autocomplete, profiles, inline images, groups, saved searches, regular expressions, filters for Mac OS X', which I tried yesterday and really liked, doesn't do lists either [i]. While I was using the iPad between May and October, I didn't bother with Twitter on the Mac, but that changed since I started using my MacBook Air: I'm currently using Nambu, a totally obscure desktop client that has the merit of having a configurable system wide hotkey for sending tweets, a Safari extension for one-click tweeting while surfing, and support for lists.

Developers, being geeks, are naturally good tweeters, which journalists and bloggers are often not

There is one field, however, in which I've found that Twitter is superior to RSS in keeping track of news: application development, a subject in which I've developed considerable interest . This, I think, is for two reasons:

  • developers tend to post irregularly and, not illogically, spend more time coding than writing; this is hardly surprising since they are emphatically not journalists and are not necessarily inclined or trained to write;
  • for precisely the same reason, conversely, developers are much better at using Twitter, which is after all a geek tool, than journalists: they instinctively know what to put in their 140-character posts—doubtless hurriedly sent out in the middled of frenzied, sleepless nights spent coding—which journalists, trained to write an article, certainly do not; the result is that their Twitter feeds are much more relevant and interesting.

This doesn't, of course, mean that there aren't any good tech journalists or bloggers: there are, but I prefer to read their blog posts or articles, and when I find them interesting, I share them on my Google Reader shared items. But it's the developers themselves that are at the cutting edge of what's occurring in tech at the moment: not only widely publicised trends such as Diaspora, but also less widely-publicised ones such as, ('Minus helps you create and share galleries online. Drag your pictures onto this page, and we’ll do the rest.' It really delivers on that promise, too) which I think is the most impressive recent development I've seen in recent months, the remarkable Reeder for iPhone, iPad and, soon for Mac, Cloud app, my preferred tool for sharing media and files on the cloud, a myriad of iPhone photography app developers… there's all tweeting about what they do.

For the past four years, I've curated a list of Mac and iPhone applications I use and like on IUseThis: this has long been a popular site, although it's been slightly neglected of late: it recently started forcing people to register if they wanted to view someone's profile, and they have yet to include the iPad among the devices they follow. Comments by users are always a useful source of information on existing applications you may not have heard of—but they will by definition tell you nothing about trends.

I've just created a short Twitter list of about thirty applications and developers I'm interested in in one or another capacity: @donaldjenkins/cool-apps. I haven't found a way of getting rid of the @ replies so far, but the content of the list, to me, nonetheless provides confirmation of what I suspected a year ago: that Twitter lists are a niche tool for developers, not something to be put in the hands of journalists or bloggers: meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, like watching too much television, passively absorbing too much Twitter list content will continue to be a manifestation of superficiality, not of being in control of what you read or of what you write.

  1. It also, even more bizarrely, doesn't offer support for using your own URL shortener accounts.