Goodreads vs Twitter: The Benefits of Asymmetric Follow

I am never more painfully reminded of the limits of symmetric “friend”-based social networks than I am when I post a book review on Goodreads. I love books, and I love spreading the word about ones I enjoy (as well as ones I expected to enjoy, but didn’t quite). Most of the time, my reviews go out quietly to a small group of friends, whose book recommendations I also follow. It’s a lovely social network.

But every once in a while, I post a link to one of my reviews on Twitter, and am immediately deluged with friend requests. Some of them are from people I know, but whose taste in books I may not share (or even care about), and many are from complete strangers. If I say “yes” to any of them, I have to see every book they review as well. As you can imagine, it doesn’t scale.

I don’t mind if anyone in the world reads my reviews, and they are in fact all public on the site, but for someone to “follow” my reviews (get notified when I write them), they have to be accepted as my friend, in which case I see all their reviews as well. Asymmetric follow should at least be an option on any social network. It’s the way the world really works. We never find ourselves in clearly delineated friend-circles, where everyone has or wants complete visibility with everyone else, or none at all.

If you’re even a minor-league celebrity like me, there are way more people who are interested in what you are doing or thinking that you can possibly keep up with. I can’t even keep up regularly with the 500+ people I do follow on Twitter; keeping up with the 400,000 who follow me would be impossible.

Asymmetric follow is why I use Twitter regularly and Facebook much less often. With Twitter’s model, I can find people I’m interested in, whether or not they know me, and learn about them and their lives and thoughts. Others can include me in their lists. You become “friends” with complete strangers over time, by communicating with them (responding with @messages for example), perhaps by mutual following. In fact, Twitter’s wonderful system of @ messages means that anyone can address me – and so I find myself having conversations with complete strangers as well. I actually follow my @ messages more faithfully than I do my planned Follow list.

On Facebook, I’m expected to approve every request, and alas, I turn down far more than I accept. Amazingly, few people who I don’t know even bother to explain who they are and why they want to be my friend. I sometimes do accept strangers who make a good case for why I’d be interested in them, but I always ignore those I don’t know who don’t bother to even say hello. Ditto for LinkedIn and Plaxo and all the other greedy networks that are clamoring for my time and attention while requiring me to take explicit steps to approve or deny each request.

(Meanwhile Dopplr has seemingly implemented a form of reverse friending, in which I am forced to see the trips of anyone who has requested the ability to see mine, a kind of Bizarro-world asymmetric follow that has rendered Dopplr completely useless to me.)

Asymmetric follow is also a good way to boost viral growth, as it encourages people to try the service without having to be an active user. We learned long ago from Usenet and mailing lists that there are always more lurkers than posters.

So, consider this a LazyWeb request to all social networks out there: even if you have your own ideas about how to organize social networks, have an option for users to turn on “Twitter-mode.” I think you’d be surprised how well it works.

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  • Tim,

    Solid observation. Online social networking is complex and just like in the real world there are people you bump into but aren’t prepared to establish a relationship with at any level.

    Since the real world is complex, the virtual social networks are evolving to mirror that complexity. It will require objective observations like yours to make that happen.


  • Astute points, Tim; I agree. Looking at it in terms of the social-graph data each company is accruing: Facebook has built the global friend graph, but Twitter is building the *influencer* graph–which may turn out to be far more valuable. You go to Facebook if you want to hang out with friends, but you turn to Twitter if you want to build an audience and become a “minor-league celebrity”. I’m starting to find Twitter far more interesting than Facebook, in part because I can follow you, Fred Wilson, Scott Berkun, etc.

  • I agree with you.
    On bookarmy we’re thinking about implementing that.
    The only problem is to find a generic enough windows application (tweetdeck or digsby or seesmic or similar) capable of reading standard activity streams ( so that it will be easier to push activity streams to users desktops and alert them.

  • @smnbss

    I don’t quite follow your comment, I’m wondering if you can elaborate.

    Tim’s didn’t refer to the activity stream part of Twitter, just how relationships map, and how you can “subscribe” to access their data without the reciprocal subscription happening. Why do you need a desktop application to follow-through on any sort of friend/follow relationship characteristic?

  • Equally important is the need for social networks to stop call following behavior – asymmetric or otherwise – “friending”. Another reason Twitter works well here is because it ditches the friending metaphor.

  • jak

    I completely agree with you.Beauty of twitter is I can follow whoever I want and get info about him/her by tweets. I’m following Tim altough he doesn’t follow me (I’m not surprised) but I’m enjoying reading his tweets. I am free to follow anyone. That’s makes twitter more important to me than fb.

  • Whenever people ask me why Twitter and Facebook are different, I try to come up with a new way to explain it. I will now be using your explanation of asymmetric follow as one way to help them understand.


  • Yes. This is one reason DreamWidth has separated reading and access control when forking the LiveJournal code. And it’s a damn fine idea.

  • A.M.

    FYI – LibraryThing allows asymmetric follow – anyone can mark anyone else’s (if public) library as “interesting” and follow their updates.

  • Carla Casilli

    You’ve hit upon the crux of the problem of social networks. You only want to follow the people you want to follow. And that desire is not necessarily reciprocal. And yet reciprocity is essential aspect of social networks. The fate of the commons tells us that. It’s a conundrum.

    Asymmetric following solves this problem and does more accurately reflect the non-wired social world. But is the current social world really the best one available to us?

    We’ve seen some indications that it isn’t. There are studies that have repeatedly proven that people seek out other like-minded people. Like-minded is perhaps not the best or most accurate term to use here because in this instance it includes the following: social standing; political affiliation; financial class; education level; sexual proclivity; professional association—it even goes as far as physical appearance.

    This explains why people don’t react to genocide in Darfur and why some people oppose gay marriage and why Susan Boyle’s video became such a huge sensation. We attempt to find ourselves in other people. Sometimes we do and a lot of times we don’t. So we keep looking: open social networks allow us this privilege.

    I am most excited (and most engaged) by social networks that allow me to interact with at least some people who are way outside of my world. Twitter excels at this. I want the leverage to see a whole range of people because I think that this is the place where creativity lives—in the spaces between ideas, people, things.

    But you’re right, you shouldn’t be compelled to follow everyone: too much information is almost as bad as not enough. We just have to be careful that we don’t unconsciously stratify our information and therefore isolate ourselves.


  • 1 — Aysmettrical also has a social currency function — whoever has the highest ratio of followers to following has more percieved value in the space. In that sense, Twitter becomes more of a broadcast medium in Tim’s Asymetterical model, and not really a social network like Facebook. So the comparison on the top level is a bit off.

    2 — With a simple search query, you can identify the users (@) and topics (#) and follow those results on Twitter. I am sure there are some tools out there (or will be) that personalizes your feeds. Facebook allows you to filter after the fact by blocking postings fairly easily. I think filtering tools are helpful in this respect, and it only takes a nano second to manage.

    3. Everybody has different objectives and usages in social networks. And 99.5% of people are not like Tim, getting hundreds of friend requests daily. So I’m not sure if his usage experience ought be applied so easily if one is trying to form a social media strategy.

  • Tim,

    I couldn’t agree more. Quoting my own profile from the early days of Orkut: “like love, it [=friendship] doesn’t always work both ways (Orkut assumes it is symmetric and consensual)”.

    At the end, a symmetric approach leads to walled gardens of friends. On the other hand, a radical assymetric approach was the one of old-fashioned mass-media (one to many, one way only). Twitter is somehow in between (not forced symmetric, enabling two-way communication).

    Your opinion is so in contrast with Seth Finkelstein’s opinion (who I think really misses the point):

    “After I saw Twitter in use, I realised the difference was that, while IRC had all participants equal, Twitter implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of blogging. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one’s life matter to an audience.”

    The needs of high-attention individuals? No, Twitter serves MY need of following whoever I choose to “no strings attached”.

  • Up to a point, Lord Copper.
    Asymmetry may be an unavoidable fact of life for a tiny number of “stars”, but reciprocity is a valuable regulator in many more relationships between many more people.
    The Twitter/Dopplr comparison is interesting: maybe the currency of the former is attention, while for the latter it’s intention?
    On Dopplr, the star’s response could be to refer requesters to a public profile, where they have fine-grained control over what they share.
    Regards, Matt

  • Tony

    You said:

    “But every once in a while, I post a link to one of my reviews on Twitter, and am immediately deluged with friend requests.”

    Do you really mean Twitter in this case? You don’t really get “friend requests” on Twitter. People will follow you, but you don’t have to in return. I think that’s the point that you’re trying to make. Should that sentence be

    But every once in a while, I post a link to one of my reviews on Facebook, and am immediately deluged with friend requests.

  • 1 — Aysmettrical also has a social currency function — whoever has the highest ratio of followers to following appears to have more value. In that sense, though, Twitter becomes more of a broadcast medium in the Asymetterical model, as the asymettery functions more like a television model (one to many). So the comparison on the top level, to something like facebook, is not apples to apples.

    2 — With a simple search query, you can identify the users (@) and topics (#) and follow those results on Twitter. Facebook allows you to filter after the fact by blocking postings fairly easily. I think filtering tools are helpful in maintaining a symmetrical model, and it only takes a nano second to manage.

    3. Everybody has different objectives and usages in social networks. And 99.5% of people are not getting hundreds of friend requests daily. So I’m not sure if this usage experience described by Tim ought to be so easily extended to all social networks, especially Facebook.

  • Isn’t this what Facebook has “fan pages” for?

    I think in their model you would only use your personal profile to exchange information with real friends, whereas you would use your fan page for “broadcasting”: see e.g.

  • I think the asynchrocity in follows on twitters and friending on FB is quite interesting. It’s because people tend to be diverse and while I might not have a great deal in common with someone — we have struck a common chord on some level and they might have others who friend/follow them that are similar in taste..
    it’s like attending an open house party and finding that there are several people who you can connect with on different levels & topics

  • I think the asynchrocity in follows on twitters and friending on FB is quite interesting. It’s because people tend to be diverse and while I might not have a great deal in common with someone — we have struck a common chord on some level and they might have others who friend/follow them that are similar in taste..
    it’s like attending an open house party and finding that there are several people who you can connect with on different levels & topics

  • Honesty, many of you sound quite stuck up. I follow many people on Twitter and many follow me back as well. I don’t have any trouble “managing” them and pay attention to what I wish to pay attention to, depending on the moment, my attention span and my mood/interests at that particular time. But, to be elitist and think that only a few people interest me is … well, depriving myself of a whole lot of humanity that, when given a chance, usually turns out to be pretty damn interesting.

    There are people who follow and/or engage with me who are smarter and some who are not as smart, people who are more successful and many not as successful, people who are well educated and people who are not as well educated, people who are bright and lively and entertaining and those who are often not. I like them all. Some I enjoy more, but others I respect because their choice to follow me is a gift. And something I respect.

    And when using a smart application like TweetDeck or TweetVisor, staying in tune with the people who grace you with a follow is really quite easy.

    Even minor celebrities get their heads stuck up in the clouds sometimes and methinks a few of you need to come down and mingle with the “ordinary folks” and get some air.

    People is what makes Twitter so infinitely interesting. Engaging, often with complete strangers, is what makes it fascinating. And finding friends and common interests, sometimes where completely unexpected, whether of a personal or a professional nature, is what is so amazing and unique about the community that is the Twitterverse. Facebook and LinkedIn are definitely more clunky and the permission-based applications become annoying after dealing with something as wonderfully seamless as Twitter.

    Follow who you choose, remain elitist if that’s your preference, but ignore the masses at your own risk. Sometimes, it’s the very masses who make you “famous” … and the masses who can choose, ultimately, to ignore you as well.

    Oh, and follow me on Twitter, and I’ll definitely follow you back.


  • Oh so, perfectly said. Unfortunately I recognized this weakness is FaceBook’s model to late. I don’t want to just cut off 70% of my “friend’s” list by un-friending them… just seems rude or harsh. But for that exact reason, I’m rarely on their website.

    Twitter FTW in the end. An old class mate asked me once, “what’s with twitter?” in an annoyed tone because they didn’t “get it”. I said, it’s like life. Say what you want, went you want, some will listen, most will not. Follow/friend those worth listening to, and ignore the ones that aren’t.

    Just like you would any tangible relationship. It seems that for some, a technology driven one has to be so much more.

  • Interesting discussion, and I agree with the basic premise of your initial post, Tim. I see it as only fair to show more than passing interest in someone you opted in to accept into your network – which sets a limit to how big this can scale, especially when you have limited time to participate on a specific network.

    I blogged about my ‘reasons’ for friending and following people on Twitter some months ago:

    All success

  • bowerbird

    i’ve laughed at you before when you overestimated your influence,
    tim, so you can believe me when i tell you that 400,000 followers
    means you’re definitely not a “minor league celebrity”. you’re not
    a celebrity at all (and likely wouldn’t want to be, because that’s
    very vapid), but you’re definitely playing in the major leagues…

    but “asymmetric follow” is redundant. following is unidirectional,
    by definition. if you really “follow” someone who “follows” you,
    neither of you will ever go anywhere. at best, you’ll go in circles…

    a “symmetric follow” is _friendship_, or as close as it comes in the
    social-networking cybersphere. and it will not scale to the point
    where you can do it with 400,000 people… that’s broadcasting…


  • Bas

    Not sure if anyone mentioned it, but Facebook is allowing asymmetric follows in two ways.

    1) Fan pages. Nuff said.
    2) Through the news feed and friend lists, you can filter in such a way that you don’t have to see some people’s stuff in your news feed and you see just the stuff of people you care about. If you are worried about the mutual sharing information, just make a list that completely restricts your profile (minus whatever you want to share) and add those people to that list.

    That’s it.

    But still, they should consider a more open asymmetrical follow system that doesn’t need so much workarounds.

  • Tim, thanks for bringing this topic up to the surface! I love Twitter and many people have very interesting tweets. I do not have a huge amount of daily follow requests, but I do like the fact that I do not automatically follow back on twitter. My twitter stream does get some digital noise once in awhile, but I usually follow people that have similar interest with me. Auto follow on twitter or any other social media service seems to degrade the personal value of the discovery part of the service.

    How can anyone really discover important gems in their data stream when the droplets of information are surging by like Niagara Falls?

    Social Media / Social Networking should not be a competition for collecting random followers (friends, customers, listeners, …) Can you imagine being at your favorite restaurant with a large group of your friends. Then some stranger sits down at your table with your friends and starts talking about lotizva while eating off your plate? Yeah, what the #?@@ is lotizva? There are some pretty funny videos on YouTube that pokes fun at how facebook would look in real life . This one made me LOL (

    I hope more people think about the “Social” side of social media. This type of connection (follow) is even more valuable in the Enterprise 2.0 environment.

    I am bookmarking this page, so I can easily come back and see how other people feel about this topic.


  • Todd Weidman

    This is a very interesting discussion, Tim.

    My objectives for each platform are, for now, at the opposite ends of the social spectrum (I will answer the question of why I use each).

    Facebook to me is highly personal. The symmetric approach is exactly what is needed in order to protect certain thoughts, pictures, etc that I share. My relationships with my FB friends allow me to discuss the highs and lows of life – as my friends have the context to understand what I’m describing and living. I’m not ready to share much of that yet with the twitterverse.

    Additionally, with respect to urgency and relevance, my updates – and the updates from my friends – can be read at leisure. Important from a personal context, but not important from a professional context.

    Twitter is a different story. I use it much like I traverse through the unstructured postings in Usenet groups. The micro-focus on my interests allows me to immediately identify those users from whom I can learn. I use it to “go to school”. I also use it to “teach” others – those that follow me – when I have something relevant to add to the conversation, via broadcast or via dm. I have found the links, reports, research, etc that are distributed via twitter to be invaluable. I use the smart apps to cut through the noise and have a focused “classroom” experience. The context is professional – career buidling -special interests – that I can control.

    I have a difficult time understanding the need to to combine Twitter updates and Facebook updates into the same view, such as Tweetdeck. Its as if I’m bringing my friends to work or school. I can chat with them after class :)

    Dr.Mani, great blog post.


  • Tim … I understand your need for asymmetric following, but I have found that many of my richest experiences on Twitter came from people I did not know but followed because they followed me (or had tweeted someone I am following).

    I really enjoy that discovery process where strangers lead me to places I would never have discovered on my own. So I follow a lot of people, just for the joy of happenstance discovery.

    That said, I do like the ability to not follow everyone who follows me. That way I can eliminate the spammers, sex come-ons, salesmen only, and the very boring.

    As with you, I find the @JohnKremer tweets more interesting than the DMs or the Twitter stream.

  • @Xavier Badosa – actually, I’d say Tim is describing the same factual situation than I am, but from his perspective – note his own words – “a minor-league celebrity” – it works for him. Which is exactly what I outline in the passage you quote. Except my view is I don’t want to play that game.

    You do make a good point that, my paraphrase, it can be phrased as serving the needs of the fan base.

  • Tim, by the way, as people have pointed out in comments above, in English “asymmetric follow” is called “broadcasting”.

    Your post basically has a thread of “Broadcasting is great! Because the audience likes being entertained by an interesting elite, and there’s no way even a minor celebrity can deal with all his or her fans”.

    Except since you’ve said it in Geek and are an A-lister, people aren’t going to start flaming you as a old-media reactionary who Doesn’t Get It and is frightened by this new world of social media.

    You have no idea how cynical these sorts of posts make me about “Web 2.0”.

  • JJKens

    Shelly, you’ve convinced me that not all people on Twitter have their noses in the air. I’m definitely going to join and follow you. You make a fabulous point and you hit on the issues that made me despise Twitter and many of its narcissistic denizens. As you said, ignore the “masses” at your own risk. By doing so, it only broadens the distance between you and them and what harm is it to add them and manage them with many of the tools such as Tweetdeck.

    God forbid they might have something of value to say!

  • @ShellyKramer –

    Do you really think I should be following 400,000 people on Twitter, and if I were, that it would make me more responsive? I outlined my reasons here, and you didn’t respond. I noted that I respond more to complete strangers even to those I ostensibly follow, and how twitter’s architecture supports that.

    It’s ironic, but you seem to be of the “follow everyone because it increases the likelihood that they will follow you” school – and with your fairly transparent attempt to get more followers in your comment, it seems to me that rather than being the champion of the people that you set yourself out to be, you’re actually quite hungry to have more followers in order to increase your influence.

    Given that you say you use tweetdeck to filter out people you don’t care about, and follow only those you are interested in, you hardly stand up as the champion of equal access.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into your message, but I don’t see any substantial response to the issues I outlined here.

    Would love to understand who “has their noses stuck in the air,” and why.

  • bowerbird,

    What I mean by “asymmetric follow” is precisely in opposition to “mutual follow” (i.e. friending.) I’m friends with people when we follow each other. I’m not friends when we don’t.

    I agree that there’s some redundancy in the term, but feel that it’s important to preserve the distinction.

  • Todd Weidman –

    I agree totally that there are different use cases for FB and twitter. My problem, of course, is that even on FB, too many people want to be my “friend.” And that makes it impossible for that use case. If I’d realized early enough that I needed to strictly limit it, I’d be good, but alas, too late.

    I do think that tools like Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop, which allow groups, do make it possible to build smaller networks on top of twitter, and we may yet see the use cases meet in the middle.

  • Seth Finkelstein –

    You clearly missed the part of my post in which I said that I spend more time keeping up with the random people who address me with @ messages than I do keeping up with the 500+ people I ostensibly follow.

    I don’t think twitter is the same as broadcasting at all.

    I’m having *conversations* on twitter all the time.

    And even when I’m not having conversations, and am broadcasting, I make sure that most of what I broadcast is a rebroadcast of people I’m listening to. It’s very “web 2.0.”

    Look at the post I wrote a week or two back, with the Wordle visualization of my tweet stream.

  • Tim O’Reilly – Oh, yes, you are a good celebrity who answers his fan mail. But 1 to *400,000* is BROADCASTING. That is so utterly obvious it’s laughable to dispute it.

    And “rebroadcast of people I’m listening to” covers a lot – old media doesn’t get praised for quoting other old media members or letters-to-the-editor.

    I take a rather different perspective from that visualization:

    “It’s also interesting that many of the repeated words are not concepts or topics, but people’s names (in the form of twitter handles.) This is one of the interesting things about twitter: it’s a reflection of a community of” [A-listers backscratching each other and giving each other attention]

    Again, you say almost exactly the same things I say factually, but from a praising perspective since you’re one of the club (one of the nice members, I should add, but still, it is what it is).

    Note I don’t think that’s wrong _per se_, but I do find it darkly amusing.

  • Seth,

    I hear you that it is, in many ways, broadcasting, but that is to miss the point. The people I’m re-broadcasting are in no way “A listers.” You very rarely see me retweeting people with big followings. The whole point for me is to find people who have interesting things to say who are NOT being noticed, and to use my visibility to give more visibility to them.

    Many of these people are not even my friends, or weren’t before I met them on twitter. Many of them I’ve never met and wouldn’t recognize if I ran into them on the street. I just find their ideas and their information flow compelling. So I try to amplify it.

    This is in fact what news media should be doing, but too often doesn’t: bringing new voices to the fore.

    But I will say that it is very web 2.0, a deep remixing and aeration of the information stream, and not darkly amusing at all.

    If you feel that way about it, you may yourself not be participating deeply enough, or you too would have found and listened to many new voices.

  • Would a newspaper columnist who said something like “You very rarely see me writing about politicians and power-brokers – I try to find the story of the little guy, and use my visibility to give more visibility to them.”, be given a pass? Or would they still be told something along the lines of “But you’re still part of the Bad Old Media, unlike the New New Thing, where we don’t have that horrible broadcasting, we have the fantastic Asymmetric Follow.”

    I haven’t audited what you’ve done – but I will observe that rarely does an insider say they only care for insiders. This is an old old argument, I know you’ve heard it a lot in the form of Where-Are-The-Women.

    Once more, my point is not to criticize you personally. Rather, it’s gallows humor at how much you’re saying things that are simply flipped around versions of concepts decried elsewhere.

    “you may yourself not be participating deeply enough”

    And here we come to the hoary defense that proponents can never be wrong, there are only critics who Don’t Get It.

  • Shelly Kramer


    My response was as much to the comments to this post as it was to the post. And many of your commentators don’t seem to “get” the beauty of Twitter.

    In my opinion, the truest beauty of the medium that is Twitter is the ability to communicate and engage with people who are not only like me, but also with those who are often very different, with different businesses, experiences, interests, etc. Exactly, in fact, what I said in my original comment.

    You did read too much into my comments and completely misunderstood my explanation of how I use Tweetdeck … which is not as a filter at all, but as a way of organizing.

    To be clear, there is no filtering, nor is there a strategy being employed to gain more followers and thus more influence. I have a reputation as being just about as genuine as they come,and a call it like I see it gal. The way I saw it, vis a vis this post and the initial comments, were a bunch of quasi-famous people and/or academics talking about how difficult it would be to “manage” the masses.

    There are many quasi and real celebrities using Twitter and other social media tools, some effectively, some not. Most choose to talk at people, in the manner of traditional advertising, rather than engaging with them. The few who eschew the thought of being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the thought of communicating with the masses usually find that it’s quite rewarding.

    And engaging and following are not the same thing – nor did I ever say that they were.

    Bottom line, if you routinely engage with people, are genuine and interesting, you’re using Twitter and other social media tools effectively. If you are simply using those tools to broadcast, you are not. And, as you well know, our society is rapidly becoming a group of people who aren’t interested in being broadcast recipients.

    Maybe if you re-read the comments posted before my original comments and not take them as directly entirely at you, you’ll understand why I said what I said.

    And I’ll probably follow you back if you follow me – hehe :)


  • Shelly Kramer,

    Thanks for the clarification. I still think that it’s simply a statement of fact that “following” 400,000 people is not following at all, and that Twitter’s asymmetric model is flexible enough to be appropriate for a wide range of human interactions. I have four-hundred thousand followers, and attempt to follow about 500; my wife follows and is followed by a half-dozen.

    I find it hard to believe that you really think that even with the best of tools, that following 400,000 people is possible or desirable, except in the way that I do, by letting any of them address me directly, without my permission, and responding when they do.

  • Seth –

    I’m becoming increasingly confused about what point you are trying to make. If you really think that someone can’t use twitter as a social medium just because they happen to have lots of followers, I don’t know what to say.

    And yes, there are reporters who mix it up with ordinary people and chase down unusual stories, and there are people who follow the herd. While both are “old media” one is definitely doing a better job than the other.

    I’ve described twitter as “the most minimal newspaper.” I don’t consider parallels between twitter and journalism to be damning. In fact, I consider the journalism use cases (researching stories, talking to members of a community, and spreading the word about important news) to be important twitter use cases.

    You seem to see them in opposition to social media; I see them as part of the spectrum of value that social media provides.

    The fact that I’m responding to you here should illustrate that while blogs too have much in common with old media like newspapers, they also have a conversational element.

    At any rate, it’s clear to me that there are people with only a few followers who don’t use twitter very socially, mainly using it just for announcements, while there are people with lots of followers who do use it to carry on conversations.

  • Tim, stepping back, my point is that what you wrote is very much the sort of post which would get flamed as bad Old Media thinking if it were done by someone not writing about a hot start-up beloved by A-listers. And it’s not that I think you’re a bad guy, but the situational difference is just amazing.

    If you have 400,000 followers, you are BROADCASTING. You are a columnist with 400,000 readers. And such a columnist who wrote a defense of one-to-many as you did would likely be savaged, no matter how nice they were or how diligent about answering fan mail or how much they searched unheard voices for column material. Praising the one-to-many aspect would be enough to have them castigated.

    I’m not saying you should be savaged. I’m merely commenting on the spectacle of your rebranding broadcast and defense of it.

    It’s not like you’re the first person to do this – it’s lurked under blog-evangelism forever. But Twitter makes the aspect particularly stark, since the numbers are upfront.

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > What I mean by “asymmetric follow” is precisely
    > in opposition to “mutual follow” (i.e. friending.)

    yeah. i understood that.

    and what i meant was that neither “follow” nor “friend”
    is really the right term.

    > I agree that there’s some redundancy in the term,
    > but feel that it’s important to preserve the distinction.

    i feel it’s important to preserve the distinction _and_
    to use terms for both concepts that make them clear,
    rather than muddy them with phrases that are either
    wholly redundant or instead an outright contradiction.

    “follow” is an adequate description for _broadcasting_,
    which is how “celebrities” interact with twitter. (even if
    celebrities chat with fans, the relationship is the same.)

    and if you’ve ever heard someone say “he’s a _facebook_
    friend, not a _real_ friend”, you know the problem with
    that particular terminology.

    mapping new concepts onto old models is dangerous
    when those old models don’t really describe the reality.


  • bowerbird

    tim, i think it’s amazing that you talk back to people,
    whether on twitter or on your blog here.

    it’s a little disingenuous to call it a “conversation”,
    because you _start_ all the topics, and other people
    just _respond_. and you don’t reply to _everyone_.

    but i understand the situation of being popular,
    and how it _precludes_ a _real_ “conversation”,
    so i don’t blame you for that, not in the slightest.
    it’s not something that you can do anything about.

    like i said, i think it’s amazing you talk back at all.

    because isn’t there something more important
    that you should be doing? ;+)


    p.s. i also understand seth’s point quite well…
    part of the promise of blogs — and twitter —
    is that anyone can talk to anyone. but reality
    isn’t quite so democratic. you can _try_ to talk
    to anyone, but there’s no guarantee they’ll listen.

  • Seth,

    I still think you miss the point. Readers of a columnist writing for the NYT or even a less prestigious paper do not have the same immediate access to him (and the columnist to his or her readers) that someone does on twitter.

    Yes, there are many similarities, but the differences are instructive.

    Your argument is a bit like saying that there’s no difference between newspapers and radio, or radio and television. The medium does change what works.

    Yes, twitter, like blogging before it, is rediscovering power laws, and thus re-inventing publishing (or what you call broadcasting), but just as with previous cycles, there are important differences. Trivializing or ignoring those differences is a big mistake.

    P.S. Please show me a similar conversation you’ve had with a mainstream media columnist.

  • bowerbird –

    And how is this is different from the real world?

    My point, after all, is that twitter’s model is so effective precisely because it best matches the variability (including asymmetries) of communications in the real world.

    And you’re right, I should be doing something else.

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > And how is this is different from the real world?

    it’s not. and i never said it was. or that it should be.

    indeed, i commented that cyberspace is still more “flat”
    than “the real world”, and i applauded your accessibility.

    i never believed that cyberspace would be completely flat.

    seth probably didn’t either. he’s reporting that there were
    proponents who led people to believe it would be fully flat,
    and that they are now changing their tune in that regard…

    i never believed those arguments, so i’m not discouraged.

    i just think the social networks could and should use more
    accurate and descriptive terms than “follow” and “friend”…
    that’s all i wanted to say. i wasn’t looking for a conversation.

    if i were to start a conversation with you, it would _not_
    be about twitter. it’d be about what art you own, or what
    poets you like, or what music you listen to, or _anything_
    more interesting than twitter, for crying out loud… :+)


  • Tim, I think it’s a case of relatively minor differences being used to obscure relatively major similarities. Note “rediscovering power laws” – why do they have to be rediscovered? Because there was a whole group of people who benefited from peddling a denial those laws exist. If it was uncontroversial to state that blogging and twittering has an oligarchy of one-to-many broadcasters, who can bully and abuse anyone lower down the ranks because their targets can’t effectively reply, and if anyone outside the club wants to reach the relevant audience, they have to appeal to those few elite gatekeepers, just like Old Media … well, I hope you can see the point.
    (n.b, this is not refuted by the “but you can *chat*” response).

    [I don’t have much reason to just chat with mainstream media columnists nowadays, but I used to do it sometimes when I was more of an activist and the Net was newer. I have many “war stories”. Though it could be argued I still counted as part of the media system, as potential subject/source.]

    How To Twitter
    As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told me, “Twitter is fundamentally a broadcast system.”

  • This is so true “there are always more lurkers than posters”

  • Kathy Sierra

    Seth: “…twittering has an oligarchy of one-to-many broadcasters, who can bully and abuse anyone lower down the ranks because their targets can’t effectively reply…”

    I have some experience with abuse from those “further up the ranks”, so, I hear you on this one. But one of the reasons I am now an active participant on Twitter–and have *NOT* returned to blogging–is because it’s NOT the same with respect to bullying/abuse. There’s little incentive or even ability (140 chars, no graphics, no traditional “comments”, etc.) to bully/abuse via Twitter, and those who try rarely get much traction regardless of their status/follower count. The difference between a blog and Twitter is dramatic, although in ways I can’t yet articulate.

    I bristled and kicked and spoke out about my discomfort with the idea of Twitter even *before* I quit blogging. I lost “followers” and very nearly lost friends–real friends–as a result of (unintentionally) insulting them in much the same way that you’ve done in your Guardian piece. I wasn’t in danger of losing true friends because I didn’t understand *Twitter* — I was in danger of losing friends because I was making it clear that I didn’t understand my friends.

    You said:
    “…if anyone outside the club wants to reach the relevant audience, they have to appeal to those few elite gatekeepers”

    Yes, still (kind of) true with Twitter as it was with blogs… but with one drastic difference Tim mentioned: the fact that anyone can @reply, and the nature of Twitter encourages responding to–as Tim referred to it–“random” people who reply, based on their reply. And this is a subtle but very powerful difference from saying “well, anyone could always comment on a blog.”

    If Tim–or any other high-follower A-lister on Twitter–responds to an @reply, *everyone* following Tim sees it as part of Tim’s main tweet stream. In other words, his reply to the “random” (and potentially low-follower-count) person is a first-class tweet citizen, not simply a comment to another comment as it would be in a blog. That you do not “get” this distinction reflects (I believe) your lack of actively participating in the way that others are, and it’s the same problem I had that kept me both OFF Twitter and ON my soapbox against it.

    That is… until I was driven by a desperate need during the course of two horrifying and dangerous fire evacuations last year. When I finally realized that Twitter was my ONLY source of potentially life-saving updates during the first fire, I gave in and joined a few weeks’ later. And only then did I also discover how wrong I was about both its use and value.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Hmmm… I submitted the previous comment only to then discover Twitter’s change to the @reply functionality. As it stands now, “Tim’s response to the random person who did an @reply” will still be a first-class Tweet citizen in Tim’s “broadcast” stream, but only if Tim’s response is not itself an @reply.” While people always had the option to *not* see @replies directed to people they did not follow, most people did not choose the option. Twitter is currently using a new “feature” that removes the option–so today if Tim does an @reply, only those who ALSO follow the person he is replying to will see Tim’s response.

    However, some of us are using a workaround for this if we feel the @reply is something we want to include as part of our “broadcast” tweets. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes, as most Twitter users are awfully unhappy about the change. Those who didn’t use the option don’t like being forced into having the replies hidden, and those who DID use the option don’t like that now the rest of us are doing work-arounds to subvert it.

  • Don Linn

    In response to Kathy’s mention of the recent change in Twitter’s @reply, I hope that you, Kathy, and others will tweet directly to @ev and @biz and urge them to revisit this change. I’m capable of filtering the signal/noise mix I want and prefer the options Twitter provided earlier.

  • Kathy,

    “While people always had the option to *not* see @replies directed to people they did not follow, most people did not choose the option.”

    That’s incorrect. MOST people DID choose that option, as it was the Twitter default, and according to Twitter, only about 2% of people ever changed it. (search for “98%”)

  • Lou

    Kathy: If everyone ends up adopting your style of replies (complete tweet that happens to reply), and then only does a conventional @reply when they want to make a quick reply that doesn’t stand-alone, then this new feature is a bug win for twitter.

    As it stands, I unfollow often based on incessant context-free replies. I want replies generally, but I want them to be as well thought out as other tweets.

  • Lou

    I meant “big” win. ugh

  • Kathy, you’re extensively refuted by the number of people who posted nasty tweets about me in reaction to my article. One of those even made V-lleywag. If someone with say *400,000* followers tweeted something like “Having a conversation with Seth Finkelstein, an idiot who nobody should ever hire”, there would be nothing I could do.

    I well understand that if someone calls out hucksterism, one evangelist reaction tactic is to turn that into a personal attack on the debunker, by claiming it’s an insult to the intelligence of the prey (“Hey, look, Mr. SmartyPants over there doesn’t think you can make your own decisions as to the value of my snake-oil. He thinks you’re STUPID! Look at him, nose in the air, intolerantly saying you’re wrong in your personal choices about buying my snake oil. Not me, I’m your friend, I think you’re showing just how intelligent your are in being a customer of my fine snake-oil products …”).

    Err, I “get” that A-listers can link to you, and high-attention Twits can direct @reply attention to you. One aspect of my column that marketers seem impervious to understanding, is I DON’T WANT TO PLAY THAT GAME, *AGAIN*. “Suck up to the A-list”, for attention is not something I want to do (once more, you-can-*chat* does not refute this).

    And frankly, if Twitter is your “ONLY source of potentially life-saving updates”, that’s not a argument for Twitter (especially not for a wasteful daily grind of producing data to be mined for start-up’s profit), but a damning indication something is seriously wrong somewhere.

  • Seth, you’ve been promulgating this same pseudo-democratic nonsense about power laws for years, while continually misunderstanding the term. You look on a power law distribution as a static unchanging them, controlled by hegemonic gatekeepers, and counsel despair at this ever changing.
    Doesn’t doing this in a newspaper column strike you as even faintly ironic?

    The difference between the power law distributions online, and those offline is that online they are not truncated by high barriers to entry, but continue through the full range, down to individuals. The shorthand term for this is ‘the long tail’.

    The key thing about the power-law distributions that you miss is that the changes in them are also power-law distributed; they are subject to large disruptions in short periods of time too. The shorthand term for this is ‘the black swan’.

    Twitter forms a small-world network – information can propagate through it very rapidly, wherever it starts, as long as people can see it and pass it on. Yes, it may pass through the super-connected on the way, but to assume that sucking up to influentials is required is to ignore the excellent research by Duncan Watts on how information actually flows.

  • Kevin, thank you for providing a nice example of what I was talking about to Tim in my comment of [05.13.09 01:37 AM] above – a buzzword-laden mismash of ideas which has the goal of obscuring and denying some very basic truths. Please don’t think I’ve never heard it before.

    First, if you work out implications, my ideas would almost *have* to be widely read in a newspaper column – for the simple reason that A-LISTERS WOULDN’T ECHO IT! In a system where A-listers dominate attention, that sort of article wouldn’t be passed through the gates (except maybe as attack-fodder, with a BigHead starting off proclaiming derogatory things to their audience about it/me).

    Look, I see what you’re doing, a line of argument basically I’ll schematize as “You’re decrying Twitter as a gatekeeper game, but it appears in a gatekeeper system (newspaper column), HA HA GOTCHA!”. However, if you think about it, such an objection is silly demagoguery – it’s not refuting Twitter is a gatekeeper game, it’s trying to play on anti-MSM emotions.

    This is one part of your comment. Now for the “Long Tail”. My column is in fact exactly on extending the “power law” distributions effectively to lower levels, and I’m pointing out out this takes all the dream-selling and celebrity-desire exploitation businesses to new levels too. This should be a simple fact, and it’s an important exercise for the reader to understand why there’s such a denial of it (i.e. who benefits?)

    I don’t “miss” that, as I call it, fame-is-fickle. It’s irrelevant to the basic point that there’s a few big winners, and everyone else. Further in playing the game the house always wins. That objection, and later, are attempts to justify the system as morally right and proper, again distracting from the structure itself.

  • Seth –

    The idea of “A listers bullying those down the ranks” is a bizarre characterization of social media. The fact that there are asymmetries in social relationships does not mean that those asymmetries are abusive. They might in fact be positive.

    I like to think that I use the asymmetries that I have been gifted with to amplify the voices of those who are teaching and enlightening me. And I don’t do that because of some mythical position that they hold in a social hierarchy, but because they say things that make sense.

    I wouldn’t like to live in the world you seem to experience. Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but I see evidence every day that Twitter is surfacing opinions, news, and interesting people that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, and I see little or no evidence that people at the top of some imaginary heap are oppressing those below them.

  • Tim, note what I said – “who CAN bully and abuse anyone lower down the ranks”.

    This isn’t refuted by replying that you, personally, are a nice guy who does not bully and abuse (how many times have I said that in this thread?).

    But how is that aspect bizarre? Are you saying social media is somehow immune from the negative aspects of social – in which bullying is quite a significant problem. This is what I mean by things which should be utterly prosaic, being denied because of the unpleasant implications (the overall point then that evangelists don’t like to talk about this).

    Again, people rarely say “I echo my clique because they’re useful to me and please me”. This is a very old point (again, usually as Where-Are-The-Women)

    Exactly, there is a huge impulse to rewrite the world as right and just, where good triumphs over evil, people are successful on their merits not because of social connections, and everyone is sunny and fair. There’s quite a lot of push-back when one writes that’s not so, even in the simplest way.

  • Seth, you seem the one obsessed with A-lister’s approval here.

    Those aren’t buzzwords, they are shorthand for subtle ideas based on analysing these phenomena closely. If you want a reading list, apart from ‘The Long Tail’ and “The Black Swan’ I recommend ‘Ubiquity’, ‘Nonzero’, ‘Sync’ and ‘Six Degrees’, and ‘Fooled by Randomness’ and ‘The Moral Animal’ too.

    Or perhaps just read Ozymandias

  • Kevin, once again, the you-can-chat argument does not invalidate the “power-law” facts. Tim, if you’re still reading, please note another example which is so wearying, where simple statements of a situation must be invalidated somehow.

    Adding buzzwords to buzzwords does not improve the argument. They are misleading snow-jobs when used to obscure and distract by putting a quasi-mystical gloss on underlying hype. It is used to con and deceive where the bare propositions would be instantly recognized as marketing deceptions.

  • Tarun

    It is not only about updating your profile but catching up fast with followers so that you do not loose them out…
    Know the big brands leveraging twitter for their business

  • Melster

    RE: Mr SF here. Are you a bible basher? Egotist? Your comments (aka arguments) bear no relation to the original blog post far far above your own comments. As much as you like to fall off the wagon and go side tracked under Mr TO’s blog, perhaps you should be more effective by putting up a huge blog post on the point(s) you are trying spell out. Then retweet it to your bitter heart’s content on Twitter and see if people find you engaging online. I do look forward to seeing which part of Web 2.0 you have lend a hand to before the world ends. Also ever heard of “freedom of speech”?

  • jody Raines

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of enjoying the freedom of twitter and disliking the friending options of some of the other systems. Seems that more and more of Facebook is drowning in Mafia and Farm World (or whatever it’s called). Honestly, I really don’t care if you had a cow, or need dial-a-thug. I hate to ignore or un-friend. Twitter seems so much easier to connect,… somehow less intrusive. Perhaps it’s because it appears that the Tweets have finite duration and they are less personal? And I can comment to people I’ve never met, and who eventually believe I’ve come to know (Funny how that works).
    By comparison, it’s sometimes almost painful to read some of the advertising that my “friend” seem to feel it’s OK to share.
    Insightful article. Thank you for validating and confirming.

  • megan

    love goodreadsand twitter

  • I agree with your comments about Twitter.It is more straight to the point and better for research etc. I just wish it had more of a fanpage type profile. A cross between the two would be nice. Kind of a Twitface.(Now dont steal that)