Twitter's New "Who to Follow" Feature Is More Powerful Than It Looks

Last Updated Aug 6, 2010 5:35 PM EDT

When Twitter launched a new feature that gives its users suggestions of who to follow earlier this week, it sounded like only so much, "Duh." After all, Facebook has been at this for quite some time. Its "People You Might Know" feature, like a fishing pond, continually restocks itself with relatives, co-workers and acquaintances you might be interested in friending.

But what at first looks like some me-tooism on Twitter's part is actually a much different -- and more powerful -- proposition on Twitter than it is on Facebook. The key is the difference in the nature of the relationships on the two services. Basically, in the hierarchy of social media connection, most people view a Facebook friend as more of a commitment. You're essentially buying not only into people's status updates, but into their conversations with other people, their pictures of their cat, and so forth. The friendships feel more intrusive.

On Twitter, all you're following is little 140-character bits of whimsy, and one hopes, wisdom. That's why it's not uncommon to find plenty of people -- particularly in the social media industry -- with tens of thousands of followers. Those same people may have more Facebook friends than the average person, but, still, their number of Facebook friends is almost always a fraction of the size of their Twitter circle.

That said, until now it actually required some work on Twitter to figure out who to follow. For me, it has usually happened like this: I might notice over time that someone I already follow is constantly retweeting messages from someone I don't -- so I decide to follow that other person. Or I might decide to follow back someone who has just decided to follow me. But, frankly, before this feature launched, the network effect that makes social networks so powerful had its limits on Twitter -- unless you were willing to do the work.

Now, when Twitter users decide to follow someone, the service immediately suggests three other people they might follow, offering up nifty little pop-up boxes of their tweet-stats like the one pictured here. Each user's home page also offers up suggestions. Unlike with Facebook, these don't have to be people a user went to high school with or with whom they share 20 friends. Twitter could just be suggesting that two people in the same industry follow one another. In any case, the burden of connecting is lighter. I think I'm seeing the benefts of this play out on my own Twitter account. Though it's always hard to tell precisely what's going on, this week I suddenly saw about a third more new followers this week than I saw the week before. Though I could have done without some of them -- @justinbieberlover comes to mind -- it's a positive trend.

This feature will dramatically ramp up the interconnectedness that already has given Twitter so much traction. Thus, if you aren't using Twitter already, this is a good time to start. Now more than ever, you'd better be there.

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