Conversationlists: Some Object, Strongly.

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For the most part, the response to conversationlist.com has been really gratifying. A lot of people found it interesting, some found it really useful, and for the most part the criticism we’ve gotten has been well thought out and constructive.

Sure, plenty of people found it uninteresting, stupid, or felt that something like favstar.fm’s dynamic “most favorited” list creator was a more useful tool (and the favstar.fm lists are definitely awesome, by the way), but that comes with the territory.

The one case where criticism struck me as a little odd was also — perhaps unfortunately — the case where it was coming from the highest profile source. Over the weekend Robert Scoble Twittered “Yo @nk can you block http://conversationlist.com/ from posting to “listed?” That service is VERY spammy and hides real value of lists.”

I know, ouch, right?

I made a little effort to reach out to Scoble for some more detail on his complaints about conversationlists, but haven’t (yet, at least) heard anything back, so I’ll address the possible complaints that I’ve dreamed up here and keep an eye on the comments to discuss anything else that comes up.

Problem One: being added to a bunch of lists called “conversationlist” doesn’t tell me anything about how people view me. It is, therefore, spammy.

I agree that being added to someone’s conversationlist is something different from being added to someone’s “influencers” list, or their “tech” list, but I don’t believe that it’s less valuable information. When you’re added to a conversationlist it’s because that person is actually paying attention to you on Twitter, either trying to engage with you or talking about you. It’s a dynamic state, rather than a static classification.

Granted, you can’t easily build a scorecard from this kind of list. Instead of “500 people have added me to lists named ‘tech’, and I am therefore one of the top tech resources on Twitter,” you have to say something like “I consistently appear on 50 people’s conversationlists, so I am having a measurable impact on the discussions happening on Twitter.”

Better still, you could say something like “why am I significant to this particular group of people? Do they agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Who and what else are they talking about?”

Conversationlists don’t tell you how people think about you directly, they tell you that people are actually interested in you on an ongoing basis.

Problem Two: they’re not [ahem] curated lists, it’s a machine making them. I want to know what people actually think.

Conversationlists are certainly not curated lists in the current buzzword sense, but nor are they created by machines; they are created by people just doing what they already do on Twitter. The machine is only there to keep track of what the people are doing.

Consider this: yes, my “tech” list (if I had one) would a be curated public statement. I would include the people I think are influential (even if I don’t really pay attention to them). I would probably make a point of excluding certain people that I think are overrated (even if I secretly pay attention to those people). I would try to include lesser-known “insider” people, so that other geeks would look at my tech list and say “hey, @whitneymcn didn’t just create that same tech list everybody else did, he knows about @ObscureCoolTechPerson, too.”

My tech list would (of course) be full of fascinating people, but it would also be a view into what I want you to think about me. That’s certainly useful, but it’s not “right” in and of itself. By offering insight on who I’m actually talking to and about, conversationlists give a different view, and one that I think is equally useful. I’m curating that list with my actions, every single day.

Hell, @scobleizer is on my conversationlist right now. I obviously don’t agree with what he’s saying, but I’m sure paying attention to him, and I think there’s value in exposing that fact.

Problem Three: I @reply lots and lots of people, and my friend doesn’t @reply anyone. Conversationlists are useless to us.

I don’t see much of a problem here: don’t use conversationlists if it doesn’t fit what you’re doing on Twitter. [Though do check out the additional tools that we’re rolling out, okay?]

Some of the earliest feedback we got on conversationlists, from someone whose opinion I respect, included these two bullet points:

  • I don’t do much public conversation in Twitter so my conversationlist is kind of weird.
  • Killer idea.

So if I may paraphrase, this person said both “this thing is pretty much useless for me personally” and “I think that this thing is interesting” in the course of about four sentences. Is that crazy? No, I don’t think so. Conversationlists aren’t going to be useful for everyone. For what it’s worth, nor are Twitter lists going to be useful to everyone. The issue, however, is that “not useful to me” is rather different from “not useful.”

Conclusion

There may be other things that bug people about conversationlists, and Kevin and I really would love to hear them. Leave a comment, send an email, let us know. We won’t make every change that everyone would like to see, but we’ll absolutely listen to everything that people have to say.

Get Out of the Way

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About a week ago I learned of last night’s checkins, a newly public service built using the Foursquare API.

Once you allow the service to access your Foursquare account, it starts sending you a daily email listing your checkins for the past 24 hours or so. Reply to that email with some notes about each checkin after its entry in the email and the service records them for you: it allows you to build a little annotated history of where you’ve been and what you did there.

lastnightscheckins.com structured email

lastnightscheckins.com structured email

Several weeks earlier, Songkick released their Twitter integration tool. Once you link your Twitter account to your Songkick account, Songkick monitors your tweetstream on the days that you’re going to shows, automatically captures any tweets that reference the band you’re seeing or have a specific hashtag, and then displays those tweets on the Songkick page for the gig.

Songkick.com Twitter integration

Songkick.com Twitter integration

What’s excellent about both of these tools is that they do a very nice job of just getting out of the way.

Songkick also offers tools that allow you to submit reviews and other content directly to their service (and they’re pretty sweet tools), but I’m already used to Twittering little thoughts and mini-reviews of the shows I go to; the Twitter integration means that I can change over to using the Songkick-native tools if I want to, but if I don’t want to then Songkick gets out of the way and just makes the most of what I’m already doing.

Last Night’s Checkins could have guided people towards visiting their site to annotate the Foursquare checkins, and it would have been a defensible decision: the world is filled with services that have getting you on to their Web site as their primary goal. What’s great is that they did something way better than “defensible.”

At this point pretty much everybody sits down in front of their email inbox on a regular basis — I know that there are still people who don’t check daily, but I suspect that few of those people are active Foursquare users. I designing Last Night’s Checkins, the creator(s) clearly sat down and asked themselves “how can we make it as easy as possible for people to use this service?”

Instead of sending an email with a link to the site [read email, click link, log in to site, enter notes, save notes, try to remember what you were doing before this whole process started], they created an interface to the service that fits into the “email processing” that you’re probably already doing in the morning.

Compare the steps in the “link in an email” model…

  1. Read the email.
  2. Click the link.
  3. Log in to the site.
  4. Enter notes on the Web page, save Web page.
  5. Flip back to your email client.
  6. Try to get back into the task flow that was just disturbed.

…to the steps in the interface they actually created:

  1. Read the email.
  2. Click “reply.”
  3. Add inline comments to the “bullet points” in the email.
  4. Click “send.”
  5. Move on the the next email you have to process.

The issue isn’t that the link approach is that much more complicated, or has so many more steps — it’s that the link based approach would force you to change what you’re already doing in order to use the service.

While I like having the option of using service-specific tools that make the most of what the service can do, I hate being forced to use those tools. Over time I may decide to shift over to spending time on the Last Night’s Checkins site or using the native Songkick mobile tools, but that’s because both these services went out of their way to fit in with what I’m already doing.

Both these services let me test the waters without making a big behavioral commitment. I have the opportunity to start figuring out how they’re valuable to me even before I commit to diving in.

Twitter Lists: Categories and Conversations

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Anyone who’s spent any time with me in the past week or two already knows that I’m not a huge fan of Twitter lists, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve (once again) left many people with the impression that I’m more anti- on the topic that I actually am. In this post I’ll cover what I like about lists, what I don’t like, and also toss a little bonus experiment at the end.

As a starting point, I think that Twitter lists are a pretty decent feature that’s getting way too much attention because Twitter just got a big fat check (and because Twitter hasn’t actually added an obviously user facing feature in a good long while).

I also think that it’s very Twitter-like in that it’s unclear what lists are really for, and that the most interesting parts of the feature will likely come from what’s built on top by Twitter’s users.

That said, we move on to the good…

For me as an individual Twitter user, lists look like the feature that I’ve wanted for a year or more. Once client app support is well baked in, lists will be a relatively simple way to group and filter my tweetstream in place.

I’m not a promiscuous follower, but with even a couple of hundred people twittering away at me it’s easy to miss stuff from the core group of people that I really want to follow closely. With lists I can create a view for the 20 people that I want to keep close tabs on and just flip to that filtered view when I want to. [Yes, I know, Tweetdeck sort of does this, but I really don’t like the narrow multiple column experience.]

For some organizations (The New York Times jumped right on board, for example) lists are a nice Twitter-native way to organize and showcase the contributions that their members are making on Twitter. The lists feature pulls data that had lived on the Web (which NYT staffers are on Twitter?) and moves it into Twitter itself. Handy.

And finally for Twitter itself, there are a couple of clear benefits.

For one, the suggested user list and the hullabaloo that surrounded it can finally be put to rest. Twitter can feature a random user-created list every day of the year, and if people are pissed about being included or left out, they can take it up with the listmaker, with Twitter’s compliments.

For another, Twitter now has many, many people basically tagging one another, in Twitter’s database, with useful little snippets of information. If Twitter wanted to, say, be able to segment out its users based on their interests for some mysterious reason, those lists can serve as neat little topical tags.

And the bad, which isn’t really so bad…

Now by “bad,” I mostly mean “weak,” which is my one word answer to the question “but what about Twitter lists as a way to discover people who tweet about topics that interest you?” My longer answer is that I don’t believe it’ll work for discovery long term, for a variety of reasons.

First issue: for the most part, people are making big lists.

I don’t know whether it’s because they’re concerned about offending people by omission, taking a completist approach to covering all aspects of a topic, or something else entirely, but add just a couple of these lists and you’re suddenly following 150 more people and enjoying Twitter overload. This list making behavior could change, but it looks like a real issue for adoption at the moment. [Update: I was wrong about list subscriptions appearing in the main stream, so this point can be chalked off as poor observation on my part.]

Second issue: list rot.

We’re all excited about making lists now, but how much time are we planning on dedicating to maintaining those lists? Part of Twitter’s appeal is that it’s a low effort, low friction tool, and I’ve got to wonder whether the current batch of lists will reflect the interesting new people who join Twitter (or those who stop using the service) three months from now. Again, this isn’t an inherent problem with lists, but it’s a real concern with regards to usage.

Third issue: once you’re following a list, there’s no way to tell which tweets in your timeline are associated with a given list—who is this person, and why are you seeing their tweets, again?

You start following a music list and suddenly you’re seeing this @schlarb dude twittering about his breakfast. To find out why you’re following him you’ve got to click through to his profile, check which lists he belongs to, and then try to recall which of those lists you subscribe to. Yet again, this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it’s a UX flaw that has a meaningful effect on the experience of Twitter lists right now. [Also: note that Chris Schlarb is an incredible musician and an interesting guy, so you probably should follow him anyway.]

This third issue also points to the central concern that I have about lists as a discovery tool: the way that Twitter lists are most commonly used right now encourages us to sort people into single topic buckets on Twitter, when people’s tweets are as eclectic as the people themselves.

Take everybody’s favorite example, the venture capitalists. I follow a fair number of VCs on Twitter, and with a couple of exceptions I’d say that their tweets are about the business of venture capital and the areas/companies they invest in maybe half the time.

What’s the other half? Well, they twitter about their spouses and kids, the restaurant they’re at, music, the funny thing that they just saw…just stuff. It’s almost like they’re just regular human beings who have diverse interests and enjoy sharing those interests.

The realization that follows is that when one starts following a topical list, one can expect to get something like 50% on-topic signal and 50% off-topic noise. Sub-optimal experience, right there.

So what else can we do with lists, then?

Here’s one thought: what if rather than using Twitter lists to group people by category, we use them to group people by conversation?

If the goal is to find people who have interesting things to say about music, or food, or venture capital, why not start from a person who’s Twittering interesting stuff on that topic and link them to the people they’re talking to and talking about on Twitter? Seems like a decent way to find other people with good stuff to say on that topic, no?

Enter conversationalists. The idea occurred to me on Friday afternoon: the Twitter API allows you to create and modify lists, so why not have a dynamic, automatically updated “conversational list” of the twenty twitter users that you’ve @mentioned most recently? It makes explicit the community that you’re paying attention to, and offers people an easy way to add context for the list creator’s tweets by seeing what the creator is reacting to…it makes the experience a little deeper and richer.

And now, thanks to the awesome skills of Kevin Marshall, conversationalists have gone from a vague idea in my head on last Friday afternoon to working code on this Friday morning. And note that this timeline includes the four days that he apparently spent dead drunk in New Orleans, so it’s a pretty damn impressive accomplishment on his part.

Conclusion

Go, read a little more about it, create your own conversationalist, follow the conversationalists created by others. I’m curious to see how this idea plays out.

I don’t think that this approach is necessarily “better” than topical groupings, but it seems like an approach that factors in the very human feel of Twitter, and it’s therefore worth a few bits and a few hours to explore.

A number of people asked me about what I meant by being invested in “being wrong in interesting ways” after my blog post a couple of weeks ago, and this is a prime example. I may not be right about this being a worthwhile use of Twitter lists, but I’m certain that if I am wrong then we’ll all find some interesting stuff in the process: I’ll have been wrong in an interesting way.