Twitter Introduces ‘Suggestions’ (i.e., The Same Old SUL With A Different Coat Of Paint)

Twitter’s Suggested Users List (SUL) was a controversial and in my opinion poorly-implemented feature that provided newcomers to the platform with a selection of recommendations for them to follow when they first signed up. The idea of introducing first-time users to the concept of following was a good one; where the SUL failed was in gifting a privileged few hundreds of thousands of free followers which were then easily translated into a significant increase in status, web traffic and (by default) advertising revenue.

Yesterday on their official blog, Twitter announced the launch of Suggestions, which they are touting as a superior replacement for the SUL.

In his pitch for Suggestions, Twitter product manager Josh Elman writes:

“We’ve found that the power of suggestion can be a great thing to help people get started, but it’s important that we suggest things relevant to them. We’ve created a number of algorithms to identify users across a variety of clusters who tweet actively and are engaged with their audiences. These new algorithms help us group these active users into lists of users by interests. Rather than suggesting a random set of 20 users for a new user to follow, now we let users browse into the areas they are interested in and choose who they want to follow from these lists. These lists will be refreshed frequently as the algorithms identify new users who should be suggested in these lists and some that are not as engaging to new users will be removed.”

Which is all well and good. Except, when you look at it closely, and with one exception, it’s really just the same SUL it always was. The only major difference is the same suggested users we had previously have now been categorised.

Browse the Suggestions page here. The first tab (‘Browse Suggestions’) is where you’ll find the SUL, except they’ve now made things easier for you by tagging everybody in one of twenty different categories.

(New users see this.)

So, for example, when you click on Entertainment, you’ll see a list of the same celebrities and entertainment brands that have always been on the suggested user list.

Likewise for all the other nineteen categories, too, which includes Staff Picks and Staff Picks For Haiti. Elman writes that these differ from the other categories in that those listed inside are manually selected, but as you would expect, it’s not quite clear how these entries are determined. Highlighting a good cause is a nice idea, but Twitter’s lack of transparency in everything it does is becoming a little tiresome.

What is curious is how some of these people are verified users, and some are not. There’s always been a clear USA-bias towards the verification of accounts on Twitter, but why Anthony Edwards gets the stamp of approval and Roger Ebert does not, yet both qualify as recommendations, is something only God/Biz Stone knows.

It’s certainly true that these categories now make it easier for users (new and old) to find people to follow that come with the Twitter seal of approval, but let’s not start spouting BS about ‘algorithms’ to try and justify what this is, and always has been: a cherry-picked list of people who Twitter, for their own, often mysterious reasons, feel are worthy and/or safe enough to parade in front of first-time users.

The majority of whom must be, at least in Twitter’s eyes, easily-overwhelmed and intimidated. Far too risky to actually use a real algorithm and generate a list of recommendations based on things in which that same user has actually expressed an interest. I mean, Biz only knows what horrors that might throw up.

In short, this is unlikely to be a feature that I, or any experienced user, will ever use again.

It’s not all bad news, though. Twitter’s improved Find Friends tool is actually worth a moment of your time.

Simply enter your email address (Gmail, Yahoo or AOL) and Twitter will quickly return a list of everybody in your contact list who is also on Twitter, who you can then follow (or block) at your leisure. Amazingly, using this feature I located several very anti-Twitter friends who have informed me that they had no interest in the service whatsoever. Of course, none of them had made even a single tweet, so I guess they were just protecting their interests in case this Twitter lark really takes off.

As said, the concept behind recommending users to Twitter newcomers was solid. The problem came in the method, and nothing has changed with this repackaging of the SUL. I can absolutely understand Twitter wanting to promote and suggest celebrities and brands to newcomers because it helps to legitimise the product and comforts the visitor with faces and names with which they are already familiar, providing a neat segue. But where this all fails is in a complete lack of tailoring.

It’s not enough to simply package recommendations from a limited pool of the already established. The feature could be improved dramatically by making suggestions based on a few questions the new user answers when they first register with the network, even  if it ran alongside what we have now. Heck, if Suggestions had presented the list of existing friends on Twitter as the first thing that is seen by a visitor after registration (perhaps ranked by frequency of tweets), as opposed to the SUL, it would have been a vast improvement. At least that list has some validity, inasmuch as it’s individuals we already know and like. And trust.

As it is, it’s simply a different take on the exact same thing. And once again, its only those fortunate enough to be granted a place on the Suggestions page that will see the benefits.