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Come On, Biz. Make The Suggested Users List Relevant Or Don't Use It At All

A little less than a month ago, Twitter.com implemented a new feature to their homepage: suggested users.

The idea was that new users to Twitter often don’t immediately understand how to use the service and a percentage of accounts were following few people or nobody at all. Now, when somebody signs up to the network they’re presented with a list of 100 recommendations. You can also access this list at any time via the Find People link on the home page.

Twitter's Suggested Users List

This feature has been highly controversial. The benefits of being placed on this list are immediate and rewarding: more followers. A lot more followers.

Why Being On The Suggested Users List Matters

Earlier this month I wrote about the events surrounding @adventuregirl, who went from less than a couple of hundred followers to almost forty thousand in six days, simply by being added to the suggested users list. As of the time of writing, @adventuregirl now has 146,336 followers. She is still on the list.

(For more on this, see my article: “Oh, How I Wish I Could Be A Suggested User, Too.”)

This isn’t an isolated incident. Everybody on this list has seen an enormous boost in their follower counts. This is a big deal, particularly if you’re a brand or have something to sell or promote. The race to one million followers continues, and those on the suggested user list have been given a nice push by the Twitter founders.

Some established Twitter members with large numbers of followers, built over time and many would say in the ‘right’ way, are upset about this. Before the suggested users list became a feature, most people on the network had to recruit followers using those tried and tested internet techniques: self-promotion, being helpful and being nice.

Or, you were famous. The recent influx of celebrities to Twitter has been beneficial for everybody. Twitter itself has seen a massive rise in its credibility and mainstream popularity, the celebrities have easy access to their fans followers which is pleasing to both parties, and with membership rates across the platform now at or near 10 million, most users have seen some gain in their follower count.

That’s fine. We don’t mind that. If you’re a celebrity, only a fool would expect you to have a small following. What I think most people object to are already-famous folk, brands and corporations being given a helping hand by Twitter. And this is where the suggested users list becomes a real issue.

Enter Twitter

Yesterday on the official Twitter blog, and in the interests of transparency, Twitter co-founded Biz Stone (@biz) addressed the suggested users controversy head on.

I draw your attention to the section marked ‘How Do We Choose?’

We’ve explained that the Suggested Users list is a bit like your local book store’s staff picks but there’s a little more to it than that. Our Chief Scientist developed a program that scans active Twitter accounts for a bunch of key ingredients such as how much of the profile is filled out, certain indications that the account is interesting to others in some respects, and a few other signals.

This program then generates a list of potentially interesting Twitter accounts that myself and some product team folks here at Twitter take a look at for another set of criteria. For example, is the account a good introduction to Twittering for a new user? Does the person or organization running the account have a fairly wide or mainstream appeal? If they are a celebrity or business, have we confirmed it’s really them?

Finally, we’ll do a gut check internally with a couple folks before adding them to the Suggested Users list. The list continues to grow and change although only a subset of twenty accounts are randomly displayed as suggestions during the new user signup process. Twitter is not paid to include accounts in this list. The Suggested Users feature exists to do a job-it makes Twitter more relevant and valuable to users. All that being said, when we find out Oprah starts Twittering for real we may very well put her on the list.

Holy caw; my BS-o-meter just went through the roof.

First of all, my gut tells me there is no Chief Scientist, and if there is, he ain’t writing any code that scans bios. Not for this list. Probably 99% of established accounts on Twitter have a full bio in their profile. I’m not seeing too many of them show up as an official recommendation.

MySpace celebrity Tina Tequilla is on Twitter now, and also in the suggested users list. Let’s take a close look at her bio (@officialtila). It contains two words: “I rule”.

What about Jason Goldman (@goldman), and his 222K+ followers? “Flipped my wig at age 22 and it never grew back. Also: I work at Twitter.”

Ah. I see.

The New York Times (@nytimes) doesn’t even have any words in their bio.

(Further down the page, Biz even has the nerve to add, “The program that we run looks for a few different things but it definitely helps to fill out your profile info in account settings because otherwise it may skip right over the account.”)

Right.

Paragraph two:

“Is the account a good introduction to Twittering for a new user?”

Nobody in the SU list is a good introduction to Twittering. Not one person. Sure, there are people that bring value to Twitter and are absolutely worth a follow. But nobody there will provide any kind of educational introduction about using the service to the Twitter newcomer, nor will you learn much simply because of the way they tweet. Indeed, most of the famous folk on Twitter are asking the exact same questions about how to use the network as everybody else.

Let’s move on:

“Does the person or organization running the account have a fairly wide or mainstream appeal? If they are a celebrity or business, have we confirmed it’s really them?”

Now we’re getting to the rub. The suggested users list is, as far as I can tell, completely made up of famous people, brands or those working for or somehow connected with Twitter. It changes from to time, with some new famous people, brands or those working for or somehow connected to Twitter, replacing some other famous people, brands or those working for or somehow connected to Twitter.

And this:

“All that being said, when we find out Oprah starts Twittering for real we may very well put her on the list.”

Just makes me want to scream.

Now, I’m not for a saying second anything that is labelled suggested users should be entirely random. I don’t think it’s to anyone’s benefit if the list is made up of twenty unknowns, spammers or people who haven’t even uploaded a profile avatar.

In principle, I think the feature is a good idea. Twitter’s basic intentions are sound. A lot of people who sign up to the service don’t really know what to do next. They aren’t aware that you need to follow people to ‘get it’. So I think a system that recommends interesting folk is fine.

But what they’re doing now is misguided. More than that, it’s wrong. I mean, give me a small break here. Tila Tequilla as a suggested user? Really, Biz? You sure about that? Do you really want to turn Twitter into a portable version of MySpace?

If your Chief Scientist’s algorithm is that good, why doesn’t he first scan my bio, and then use that to produce a list of recommended follows? And when I’ve been active for a while, why doesn’t he then take a look at my tweets, and my existing follows, and use that to provide me with tailored recommendations? I wouldn’t mind half as much if this new list was still all famous people and brands, as long as they were relative to me. Even just a little bit.

Is This One Way To Monetize Twitter?

The race to a million followers is a big deal. And as a result, being on the suggested users list is a big deal, too. It’s huge. Give it a little time, and that spot is potentially worth millions. Maybe billions.

Jason Calacanis recently caused a few waves by making an open offer to Twitter to pay $250,000 to appear on the suggested users list for two years. (He later revised this to $500,000 for three.) According to Twitter, nobody pays to be on the list (Biz repeats this in his post), and so they turned him down. They really had no choice. Even if Twitter is desperate to find a way to properly monetize the service, having users pay to rank higher than everybody else would just mean a lot of bad publicity.

But with the suggested users list as it is now, they’re getting some of that already. So why not sell a few slots? At $100,000 per year, and with a hundred users in the list, that’s ten million in Twitter’s pocket. Annually. And if @adventuregirl is seeing forty thousand new followers in a week and another hundred thousand on top of that in less than a month, how much can a world-famous brand or corporate expect to have in a year? A million? Two? Ten? If you’re big business, that $100K is going to seem like chump change to effectively guarantee ten million eyeballs. That’s one cent per customer. Whom you can target again and again. And again. And again. Write those tweets carefully, and with grace and style, and you won’t lose them. And if you do, somebody else will come along within the next few seconds, simply ’cause you’re on the list.

Heck, at a million dollars a year it’s an absolute bargain.

And Twitter wouldn’t even have to go this far. They could charge for impressions on the suggested user list, which would give everybody a chance to publicise their account. Ten bucks buys you one hundred, user-tailored or keyword-optimised appearances. I mean, why not? I’d consider it.

Why Can’t We Have A Level Playing Field?

Otherwise, all Twitter’s left with is a lot of niggled power-users. Sure, the celebrities are happy – at least, those fortunate enough to make the cut (better fill out those bios, fast) – and the slightly cynical amongst us might observe that Twitter’s current boon owes a world of thanks to Tinseltown and television, so it certainly pays to keep them sweet.

But because the list is so redundant to so many, and because being on the list is so lucrative to so few, it doesn’t add up. It’s simply not fair.

Do The Right Thing

Towards the end of his post, Biz writes:

“We may very well change the way we populate this list or stop using it altogether if there is some other way to get the job done.”

Great. While this is a bit of a wishy-washy catch-all, either of these options looks good right now. Revamp the list or scrap it altogether. As is, it’s not only irrelevant to millions of users, but unless Twitter gives everybody the opportunity to buy their way in, it’s also implicitly unfair to everybody who isn’t, and never will, be famous enough to get picked.

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