The Follower Model is a Broadcast Legacy

From what I understand Twitter started out as a simple service to communicate between small groups of closely connected people with SMS integration. Looking it up on Wikipedia I find this quote:

“Dorsey introduced the idea of an individual using an SMS service to communicate with a small group.”

In other words I suppose you could see Twitter as a lightweight, simple version of what Path is now, a platform for small groups to stay in touch. This makes sense. Like Path, this original idea means that in most use cases everyone would have followed everyone else.

But Twitter grew. And bigger numbers bring different structures. What is manageable in a small group isn’t manageable with thousands of people. Ultimately people started to make decisions between following everyone that followed them or only following a small group of people that were of interest. In between those extremes came all sorts of variations, like lists that enabled you to keep up with the really interesting people while pretending to take notice of the rest.

Essentially what happened is that huge growth reverted Twitter to a broadcast model. For many people it became more about getting a following than having a discussion. So, there’s a disconnect at the heart of Twitter. A huge imperfection that makes it sort of useful for self-promoters and sort of useful for conversationalists. But not perfect for either.

Twitter trundles on with these flaws and in many ways is more loved because of them. But the follower model that it operates on looks increasingly like a throwback to broadcast media. Some of the most disillusioned Tweeters cite lack of conversation as one of the key factors in their disillusionment. In other words, the broadcast framework of Twitter is seeing increasingly broadcast behaviour.

But that’s Twitter. And Twitter isn’t really the issue here because, as I’ve said, Twitter is flawed and mostly still loved anyway. What is the issue is when new platforms use the same follower model. Most of the new services I try still seem to think that following people is the best route to social interaction. They immediately adopt a broadcast approach. Which seems a little backward.

It’s a bit like always hearing everything ever said by anyone I’ve ever met. My Twitter stream is full of people who have said interesting things at some point but who I’ve never got round to unfollowing. Even though I probably should have done. This will be the same for every other platform I sign up to that has the same model.

The reality for me is that the follower model makes everything rather stilted. There’s an inertia at the heart of the architecture that actively works against social discovery and conversation. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a very sophisticated newspaper rather than connecting with people on a social platform. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are exceptions.

So I think that the follower model is too much a legacy of broadcast media to be a useful blueprint for the social future. Social dynamics need to be better understood and hard-wired in to the next wave of social apps. Otherwise the promise of all this social stuff will be squandered.

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11 comments
  1. I use Twitter with the default settings, and I like the default settings. Strictly speaking, that is a ‘broadcast’ model, because it’s not like Facebook, where we both have to agree to be friends, but when you call it a ‘legacy’ it makes it sound like black and white television, or a throwback to an earlier generation of media. I don’t think there are any ‘read-only’ Twitter clients. Everyone with a Twitter account has always had the power to send messages, although not everybody does, and not everybody attracts followers.

    I think Twitter has succeeded because it has hardly anything hard-wired into it. (As Neil Innes said, it’s ‘totally not thought through’.) The social dynamics are soft, emergent, negotiated, local, diverse and changeable. It’s a space where anybody can have a voice, and nobody has to put up with anybody they don’t get on with. That makes it a great tool for trying out new behaviours and new forms of affinity in a world whee everything is abundant except attention.

    • I completely agree about Twitter’s openness and lack of forethought. It’s clear how lost it is as a platform when it tries to bolt on new features. Very few of them seem to be received well by its core users.

      But, while that openness makes Twitter an almost organic platform it’s sad to see that developers of new platforms are just trying to implement the same architecture, like the subtler lessons of Twitter’s experimentation haven’t been learned.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Totally agree. Follower model flawed and in fact if we called it a ‘connection model’ it might change the approach of many people.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think the idea of connections is something that needs to be better understood. Neither following or friending help with the natural ebb and flow of interactions needed for better social discovery and conversation.

  3. I completely agree. While twitter has been useful in discovering some interesting articles and individuals – its main strength is as a broadcast medium. To actually build communities and relationships, you have to adapt a strong social gesture such as commenting and/or blogging. I find commenting and getting involved in social conversations to be a very rewarding process and in many cases there are relationships waiting to be made.

    • And thank you for commenting here. Deeper conversations are very difficult on Twitter and it would be great to see new platforms emerge that put conversations at the centre rather than following. At the moment it seems back to front.

      I agree about the importance of blogging in all this too. I haven’t been doing it myself all that long but it’s interesting how writing a blog changes your social dynamics.

  4. annemcx said:

    Thoughtful stuff Simon, and I agree. Twitter was the next best iteration of social interaction at the time. It couldn’t have really been anything else.

    We can take affinity to the next level so it’s more sustainable and dynamic through deeper more generative connections perhaps, multi-layered and levelled content choices, impact models as news.me is beginning to develop. I still think e.g. Ning has a lot going for it in terms of provoking creative communications and play and wouldn’t want to throw any babies out with the bathwater in a relentless quest for ‘more’ or ‘better’ too soon.

    But these are the kinds of useful observations that help the process of how we benefit from platform maturity, lots to get better, and lots to appreciate too as springboards for the future, based on what we now know as a result of experience.

    • Thanks for the comment. You’re right in that it’s a learning process and iterative, which is why seeing new platforms that clearly haven’t learnt is so sad. But, yes, there are new models on the horizon and that’s good.

      Ning is an interesting one. One if its earlier barriers to adoption was the fact that it created separate networks. Many people were saying that it was better to be where the crowd was. But it’s almost like it’s come full circle. Now people are seeing the value of niche interests to drive more meaningful conversations, and topic-specific platforms will benefit from this.

  5. Thank you for raising some important points in this interesting post, Simon. It seems to combine a fairly balanced mix of rant, reason and requirements.

    Trying to discern your meaning, it seems that the desire for “social discovery and conversation” is high on the agenda.

    Initially, your post triggered me to draft a long diatribe which organised communication channel behaviour into layers which handle: connection, messaging and conversation. This succeeded in proving, to me at least, that whether a “follower” model for managing connections correlates with the use of a channel in “broadcast” mode depends partly on the definition of “broadcast”, but mainly on the choice, in the substantial messaging layer that lies between those two areas, of message exchange patterns which are not discussed in your post. So there seems little value in sharing the details of that with everyone. Also, labelling something as “legacy” implies a costly millstone, which broadcasting may not be, especially when we can ignore it and have alternatives; maybe substituting the label “heritage” might reflect its role as a valuable foundation and, even, as a springboard for what comes next.

    On your main point, it seems that your objection to the current state of affairs relates primarily to the criteria for selection of the information that is delivered to you by these communication channels. In particular, I wonder whether, instead of the identity of the author or sender dominating the selection, you might prefer that much more weight be given to subject area, quality, location, relevance or something else.

    If so, the way forward might lie in wider availability and use of search functionality including, so called, smart searches which stream updates of matching messages as they are found. Maybe this will be the transition from identity-based to content-based discovery, that has been seen for documents on the web, now being applied to messaging.

    Keep the ideas and desires coming and let’s think about how products might satisfy them!

    • Thanks for the comment. You’ve hit the nail on the head by suggesting that I’m more interested in the content than the author. This might seem counter-intuitive for a social platform but I actually believe we’d develop better relationships by moving more to a content focus.

      You could well be right that the search and discovery tools are an obvious area to work on but it seems like a peripheral fix to a fundamental architecture problem.

      However, as has been said before in these comments, Twitter has provided a good platform for experimentation and is a natural iteration of the broadcast model. But if we know that why do so many new platforms use the same architecture?

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