n Degrees of Twitter

This week on ATP (or was it the after show?) the gents accidental discussed Twitter, frustrations with the crowd there, and strategies for dealing with what they politely called “negative feedback”.

It’s a great discussion, and as they spoke my mind wandered to technical solutions to the problem (as a programmer’s mind often does).

I’m calling my solution “n degrees of Twitter” (based on the six degrees of separation theorem). In this solution, I would choose a number (n) that represents the number of degrees of separation that I will allow in my @-replies. Sounds weird, but here’s how it would work:

  • At 1 degree, my @-replies would only be people who I follow.
  • At 2 degrees, my @-replies would only be people followed by people I follow.
  • At 3 degrees, my @-replies would only be people followed by people who are followed by people I follow.

And so on. Presumably, I could select a number 1-5, and then, “anybody”. At each degree, the “sphere” of people that can reach me via @-reply grows significantly.

The important part is the follow chain: you’re essentially using yourself and your choices in who you follow to filter out people who are outside a sphere. When you select a degree above 1, you’re also putting faith in those that you follow to also follow worthwhile people.

It’s also important that it work in that direction: somebody who follows me should not automatically be able to @-reply me. Nor if they follow any of the people I do, or the people at the next level. What’s important is that somebody in my sphere has validated them.

There’s a number of positives to this solution:

  • Assuming you set the degree higher than 1, you’re putting some faith in the people you follow to help you see interesting stuff.
  • You’ll be holding people accountable (and you’ll be accountable yourself) for following interesting people, while hopefully shunning trolls. This gives follows much more meaning than simply “I can hear you now” – you can hear them anyway, if they @-reply you in the current system.
  • You are actively vetting the people who can “drive by your porch and shout stuff” simply by following and unfollowing people.
  • You’re absolutely destroying spam replies. They can @-reply all day; you’ll never see it because junk accounts generally only get followed by other junk accounts (assume that this parenthetical is filled by irrefutable evidence of the above statement).

I would wager that even if you set your degree to 5, you’d rarely – if ever – get spam. Ideally, if Twitter did build this, they’d be able to show you the follower chain for any @-reply, allowing you to know exactly who’s letting the spam in and alert them. Well, if you’re in their sphere, anyway.

There’s also downsides (reminder: it’s opt-in):

  • You’re potentially losing out on serendipity. There’s always the possibility that some really great, smart person out there is going to @-reply you, and their genius never recognized because nobody (in your sphere) follows them.
  • It makes Twitter potentially less interactive for a lot of people. In fact, this would be taking a giant step in the direction of Facebook in terms of personal privacy. (Don’t worry, eventually they’ll merge, right around when iOS X ships on the 0-port MacBook.)
  • If you only follow people that think and talk like you, and share your politics, religion, and worldview, Twitter is just going to be a custom 24-hour news network of stuff you want to hear, and nothing that challenges your assumptions. Yes, that’s bad. Shut up, Donny.
  • There’s a pile of technical edge cases for when somebody @-replies more than one person (and many other situations), that could lead to confusion if not implemented well.
  • It’s probably a major technical challenge (pfft). But they’ve got people, I think they could figure it out.

I don’t have high hopes that Twitter would actually implement something like this. Mostly because I don’t think they care about this problem that much. But even if they left the default setting as it is – anybody can @-reply me – the majority of new and existing users would be unaffected, and folks like John, Casey, and Marco would have a way to shoo people who come by their porch.

Oh, and you can shout at me too if you like. For now.

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