Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Following topics rather than people - additional thoughts

I just wrote a comment in The AppsLab blog that I should probably pursue further. In essence, I'm looking at the difference between following people and following topics. You may remember that I touched upon this topic in a September post:

[W]hy do content-emphasizing social media networks sometimes emphasize following the people, rather than following the topics?

Let's take Twitter as an example. Twitter's content-searching capabilities are admittedly atrocious, but one thing that is really easy to do in Twitter is to follow people. And when you follow people, you get the good with the bad. Perhaps you follow someone on Twitter because they posted an inspiration quote...and then their next 10 tweets are of the "make money fast" variety....

[P]erhaps there's a better way - follow by topic rather than person. That way, if you're interested in requirements management, you can see what people said about that specific topic, and ignoring all of their LOLcats stuff. FriendFeed now supports topic searching capabilities.

But let's go back to the present. The comment that I made today was inspired by Jake Kuramoto's post More Fun With Twitter Lists. In the post, Kuramoto wonders whether Twitter's new lists feature can serve as an improved barometer of authority. Perhaps the fact that John Jones is on 100 Twitter lists is more important than the fact that John Jones is being followed by 1,000 people. Perhaps not.

In the course of the post, Kuramoto noted that a "Friends of AppsLab" Twitter list has been created. You can find it at The list is explained as follows:

Anyway, now that lists are available to everyone, I figured I should show some love to you guys and add to your listed metric.

I created a “friend of appslab” list, including all people we’ve met over the years at conferences, here on the blog, at work, etc. It’s not complete by any means, and I’ll be adding to it.

This list, which happens to include yours truly, inspired me to write this comment:

One thing about lists - and, for that matter, followers - is that it focuses on people rather than topics. This could lead to issues.

The aforementioned Friends of AppsLab list presumably includes people whose interests are somewhat aligned with the AppsLab. Because of the diverse interests of the AppsLab - and because it is, after all, a lab - you would expect some level of leeway if you viewed the tweets created by the friends of the AppsLab.

For example, the fact that one of the AppsLab friends drank a banana split shake is, in a peculiar way, relevant. Oracle is, after all, an enterprise, and services such as FourSquare (the cited tweet was generated by FourSquare) suggest ways in which enterprises can engage their customers. This topic clearly falls within the realm of AppsLab interests.

But I challenge anyone who follows the "friends of AppsLab" tweets to find the relevance in this tweet ("it must take forever to film a hallmark channel movie. filming must stop for firefighters' day, millard fillmore's birthday..."). I feel sorry for the enterprise student who runs across that particular tweet in the AppsLab feed; the poor soul will end up invoking the former acronym for the Wisconsin Tourism Federation.

And the AppsLab list is a special case, because of its exploratory nature. What if someone were to set up a narrower list, such as "people interested in Oracle Database"? For that list, even a discussion of WebLogic may be considered off-topic.

While I know that social media is supposed to be all about people, in reality social media is also about topics that interest the people. For enterprises and enterprise workers to truly mine the information that is out there, we need better ways to do it. Following a person or a list of persons, while appropriate in a generic social media context, may not be appropriate in an enterprise social media context.

Unfortunately, our search tools aren't smart enough to do this at this time. I cannot think of a way to search Twitter for "AppsLab-y" tweets. When will our search tools become intelligent enough to distinguish "I just ate a mango" from "I just told FourSquare that I drank a mango shake at a local business"?

Perhaps I should pursue this line of thought further. Or maybe I should just try a mango shake.

What are your thoughts on following people vs. following topics?
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