Social Graph Payola – The Twitter Dilemma

I realize that everyone is pretty well in SxSW mode these days and this post will probably go under the radar but something is going on in the Twittersphere that is profoundly disturbing. Yesterday morning Jason Calacanis posted a message in his Twitter stream that he would be willing to fork over $120,000 a year for one of the 20 slots in the Twitter Suggested Users listing. It is this listing that is presented to every newcomer to Twitter as suggestions of people they should follow.

Jason’s belief is that given time these twenty slots will be worth $1 Million a year – almost Super Bowl commercial level. Now he could very well be right and for those people using Twitter as part of their overall brand building having your name in front of every single new person signing up for Twitter could end up being worth a lot of money. However if Twitter was to go down this road the repercussions would be felt all the way through Social Media.

Last night as I was following this story and trying hard to fight off a nasty cold I posted a comment on FriendFeed were I said

“this bullshit about buying a place in Twitter Suggested Followers is really pissing me off”

This led into a very interesting discussion with folks of varying opinions adding in their valuable two cents worth. There were some who thought the whole idea was stupid and if people wanted to waste their money let them. On the flipside we had people like Robert Scoble, Mark Trapp, Daniel J. Pritchett and Todd Hoff engaging in a great discussion of why this is a bad idea. Jason Calacanis even chimed in with a comment about how it was amazing that this one small feature of Twitter was getting so much attention.

The very fact that Calacanis is willing to cough up $250,000 for a slot in that small feature for two years only shows that it isn’t a small feature but rather a very important one. It is also one that Twitter has botched up as they did search on Twitter. Much like Summize did a better Twitter search the same thing is done for suggesting users to follow by MrTweet – all because Twitter for the most part misses the boat on things like this.

In missing this very important part of the service Twitter has left itself open to these type of manipulations by people with the money to do so. Suggested People to Follow should never be based on who can pay the most money for one of those 20 spots. MrTweet shows that some fairly good matching can be down with even the limited amount of information Twitter might have about a new user so there is no reason why Twitter can’t do the same.

Where this whole idea of Suggested Follower payola really proves detrimental is when you understand that Social Media is built around the idea of individual Social Graphs. These graphs are the networks that we have developed naturally over a period of time. They are also extremely fluid as people within our social graphs rise and fall within their own social networks. These graphs are almost organic in nature but by purchasing a spot in something as simple as Twitter’s Suggested Followers Listing these graphs are no longer organic but rather a commodity that can be bought and sold.

By introducing this idea of buying and selling Social Graphs the very basis of Social Media is called into question. In buying that place in front of every set of new eyeballs, and existing ones, those that can afford the price side step the natural organic growth that is integral to Social Media and Social Graphs. Once again the power of money provides an extra advantage that is the very anathema of what Social Media stands for.

In short when rich people like Jason Calacanis makes an offer like this it only goes to show that even the goodie two shoes warm and fuzzy ideals of Social Media and Social Graphs can be bought – in other words it’s just business as usual.

[Graphic: The Social Path]