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The Follower Model is a Broadcast Legacy

July 11th , 2012

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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