23 Oct 2010 8 am eastern

“Similar to You”

IN THE TRADITION of “People who bought ‘Assmasters’ also bought ‘Assmasters II,'” Twitter has chosen four of my Twitter friends and is presenting them to me as being “Similar to You.” Pray what does this odd-in-this-context phrase, with its “Related Products” vibe, mean? Does it mean if I like myself, I would also like these people? Surely not, for I already know that, as demonstrated by the fact that I follow them. Were they chosen for discussing similar subjects (e.g. design, web design, CSS, semantic markup)? Unlikely, as that would imply Google-like keyword data mining and analysis bordering on artificial intelligence.

Then, what? It can’t mean people whose tweets resemble mine, as the Twitter writing style and frequency of the listed friends is purely their own. People with whom I have followers in common? That seems most likely, but it’s just a guess.

I’m curious to know what Twitter and its new CEO (hi, Dick!) mean by this. What is the marketing purpose of this feature? Am I to view Twitter as an informal “personal brand analysis” service? That could be cool for me and for the four people who are “Similar” to me. But surely most users would be uninterested in such a service, unless, unbeknownst to me, nearly everyone who uses Twitter is a marketer who views it primarily as a channel. And most companies don’t spend money developing long-tail features, of interest only to a tiny fraction of their users.

I love Twitter. I wish I’d invented it, and not primarily because if I’d invented it I’d be taking the Japanese women’s gymnastics team on a round-the-world cruise. I wish I’d invented it because it is something really new on the internet, like the web, and filled with potential, like the web. As a designer, I pay attention to Twitter same as I do Apple, Google, Flickr, and Facebook. The new feature intrigues me precisely because its language feels “off” and its purpose eludes me.

Also of interest, although less so: what data is being used, and how is it being analyzed?

What’s your theory?

Filed under: Design, Information architecture, interface, twitter, Usability, User Experience, UX

27 Responses to ““Similar to You””

  1. Tricia said on

    One time, in my “Similar to You” box, I found…MYSELF….ummmm….I don’t think it is possible to be any more similar to myself, unless that other self was like the double rainbow version of me. What does it MEAN????

  2. Terry Eaton said on

    I dislike the nomenclature and the feature equally. Most of all I dislike the inability to hide ‘Similar to you’ and ‘Who to follow’. There have been times when I am forced to look at a person I cannot stand in ‘Who to follow’ and REALLY do not like the idea of the person popping up in the ‘Similar to you’ panel. What are you trying to say, Twitter? I am like that douchebag?

  3. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    In a conversation yesterday, my friend Derek Powazek pointed out why we can’t turn off “Who to follow.” Some “Who to follow” recommendations are sponsored. That is, Twitter sells them, much as Youtube sells featured video slots and other sites sell ad space. So, for example, a would-be social media guru trying to skip to the front of the line could do so by renting a “featured” slot—provided he or she has the money to pay for it, and provided the audience s/he is trying to reach clicks “featured” “Who to Follow” recommendations (as Twitter clearly marks paid recommendations to differentiate them from those that arise naturally).

  4. Joshua Goodwin said on

    I’m probably stating the obvious, but there have been things on the Twitter Blog about “Who To Follow” and “Promoted Accounts”, from which it is possible to make assumptions about how this particular thing works. Interestingly, Twitter has such thing as a “user relevance team”.

  5. Rasmus Kalms said on

    In a conversation yesterday, my friend Derek Powazek pointed out why we can’t turn off “Who to follow.” Some “Who to follow” recommendations are sponsored.

    I sure hope not! The whole idea just gives me the creeps. It’s like paying your way into a social circle. Of all the things that Twitter could monetize I sure as hell don’t see this as a viable option.

    Beyond that, I think this little “feature” is way off. Funny, but way off. As long as it stays as a cute gimmick, I’m all for it.

  6. raul said on

    I am listed as being similar to Jake Dobkin’s cat.

  7. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Joshua Goodwin:

    I considered the notion that the similar users aren’t there for me, they are there for people who visit my profile, who like what I have to say, and who might seek “similar” sages to follow. That is indeed an obvious use case when browsing other people’s profiles.

    But the use case is quite different when I’m viewing my own profile.

    A comparative use case would be, if, when I viewed my own profile, Twitter were to show me people “similar” to me whom I don’t follow. That would be helpful in the same way as the existing use case (when viewing someone else’s profile)—the idea being to help the user discover new people to follow, thereby engaging more deeply and more frequently with Twitter, which of course is Twitter’s marketing objective. Matching user objectives to business objectives is good sense and good business, and it’s part of what makes successful websites work.

    But no such user helpfulness and no such Twitter business objectives are served by showing me people I already follow.

    It’s interesting, of course, to see whom Twitter thinks I’m most like—and their guess is pretty good!—but whereas the feature as configured is interesting to me as a semi-public figure curious about, say, my standing vis-a-vis colleagues in my field, it wouldn’t be interesting to my uncle to learn that he is “similar” to my aunt and his granddaughter (i.e. the feature as configured is irrelevant to a “normal” Twitter user).

    I wonder if it is an unconsidered left-over from the more sensible use case of showing visitors who like a profile other people that they might enjoy following.

  8. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I also have business and personal relationships with three of the four people to whom I’m similar, but Twitter has no way of knowing that. Curiouser and curiouser.

  9. Erica Glasier said on

    Twitter thinks I’m similar to my husband. This is a nice confirmation of our decision to get married.

  10. Joshua Goodwin said on

    When I view someone else’s profile, I do indeed see a list of users who are “Similar to @whoever”, all of whom I do not follow and am given the option to follow by clicking “Follow”. These list items are neatly arranged in two columns, whereas on one’s own profile, the “Similar to You” list items are awkwardly stretched across the sidebar, which makes me wonder whether “Similar to You” is unfinished for now and will make more sense once it has been finished.

    Rasmus Kalms: Does the little “Promoted” label beside any paid-for suggestions not make it less creepy?

  11. Ian Smile said on

    Philip K. Dick called them replicants and if Michael Keaton is involved, it’s called Multiplicity…

    I’ve been wondering about this lately. Using LinkedIn terms, I would want to see my “2nd” and “3rd” connections as suggestions for people to follow on Twitter or friend on Facebook. After attending so many conferences, events, meetings etc., it would seem your 1st connection suggestions would take care of themselves.

  12. Sophie Dennis said on

    I think it is absolutely

    an unconsidered left-over from the more sensible use case of showing visitors who like a profile other people that they might enjoy following

    The post Joshua links to specifically mentions:

    In addition, you will begin to see recommendations for similar users when you view another account’s profile

    Which definitely sounds like its purpose is to recommend followers when viewing someone else’s profile. I think this is borne out by it being absent from your home/timeline (replaced by “Who to Follow”). The inappropriateness of “Similar to You” when viewing your own profile is therefore just a failure to consider the weirdness of it when viewing your own profile vs its usefulness when viewing someone else’s.

    Understanding the intended use-case, I can now appreciate being able to see what recommended follows will appear to people who view my profile. It’s the simplistic substitution of “similar to you” for the more helpful “similar to @zeldman” which someone else sees without any context or explanation which makes this feel off, rather than the feature itself.

  13. Jody said on

    From the twitter support page regarding this:
    “Twitter search uses an algorithm that determines highly personalized suggestions based on the accounts you currently follow, the accounts followed by the users you have chosen to follow, and how other users express interest in Tweets made from these accounts.”

    via http://support.twitter.com/groups/31-twitter-basics/topics/108-finding-following-people/articles/227220-suggestions-for-you-discover-who-to-follow

  14. Drew McLellan said on

    In a conversation yesterday, my friend Derek Powazek pointed out why we can’t turn off “Who to follow.” Some “Who to follow” recommendations are sponsored.

    It’s worth remembering you can turn off any features you choose with a few short lines of CSS in your browser’s user style sheet. I display: none; recommendations, trending topics and those weird dictionary-style ads.

    It makes for a much calmer experience.

  15. Matt said on

    I don’t think ‘Who to Follow’and ‘Similar to You’ have the veteran Twitter users as their focus. It’s for the new users. People who’ve just created an account and don’t know who to follow. Friends of mine who have recently joined are in some cases totally perplexed by the how twitter even works. These features give folks like that a starting point a starting point.
    I wonder how many of the 150 million accounts have 0 tweets and are following 1 person and have no followers….

  16. Josh Elman said on

    Hi all – I work on this feature at Twitter. As many of the comments have suggested, this feature is designed to help show interesting related users when you are visiting someone else’s profile. We use information such as which people are often listed together or followed in common to help create these suggestions. When you visit your own profile, we wanted to make sure to display the users we were suggesting as “similar to you” to other users. We added a feature in this case so that you can click the ‘x’ to hide a suggestion we would have made to others if you found it particularly incorrect or offensive.

    I hope this helps explain the feature – we’re going to make some improvements and add a “view all” page soon given the feedback so far. Keep the feedback coming.

  17. DM Cook said on

    I definitely think this is for new users, and it seems like it could be improved by (potentially) analyzing/grouping together the TOPICS that the followers of the displayed people discuss (what do you think, Josh?). It would seem that this kind of information is easily locatable (by Twitter), and probably is a more useful barometer of who these people “really are” than just analyzing their tweets (which requires a lot more “intelligence” to make any good sense out of). Then again, it could just be too hard to make sense of that. However, as a (relative) newcomer to Twitter, with about 2-3 mos of daily use, I really think the “Lists” is a pretty terrible representation of, well, just about everything. There needs to be some more logic applied to those results in order to weed out people that group the world into two (or three) “lists”, or those that micromanage.

  18. Raymond Brigleb said on

    You have the most similar set of followers, more or less. Same way iTunes’ Genius feature works.

  19. cpawl said on

    You are all part of the internet elite (the crew is so very obvious), you all post about the web, typography, apple, and of course A Event Apart, if appears that all web stars are connected at the hip. Point being it does not take a complicated algorithm to realize you are “similar” – this is the most common sense I have seen in awhile.

  20. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Hi all – I work on this feature at Twitter. As many of the comments have suggested, this feature is designed to help show interesting related users when you are visiting someone else’s profile. … When you visit your own profile, we wanted to make sure to display the users we were suggesting as “similar to you” to other users. We added a feature in this case so that you can click the ‘x’ to hide a suggestion we would have made to others if you found it particularly incorrect or offensive.

    Josh Elman:

    Cool, thanks for sharing that information with us, Josh.

    Tricky labeling problem. Now that you’ve explained it, I see what you want to do, and why it’s useful to provide that information. “Similar to You” doesn’t convey that this is “my profile as others see it,” yet most of Twitter works beautifully with short labels and no support copy—so it would be out of brand character, and a break in the established Twitter user experience, to include support copy explaining the feature.

    Once you pointed out “that you can click the ‘x'” I also, of course, noticed the X. Likely the reason I *don’t* notice it as a user is that the X is visually widely separated from the rest of the suggestion. The “X” doesn’t feel like part of the visual unit—although of course it must be if I think about it. If a user were being tested on the page and asked to think about all the user interface elements, eventually he/she would notice the X and would reason that it must be connected to the feature. But the wide spacing in the layout fights that association.

    That part seems like an easy fix in a minor design adjustment.

  21. Douglas Greenshields said on

    Another reason why it’s hard to notice the X there isn’t purely visual – in part it’s because it could be unclear what action clicking the X implies, and what will happen visually after it is clicked (will it just hide the similar account, or replace it with another one, or what?). As an interface element it Makes Me Think.

    The subtext, for me, of the Similar To You panel, is “here’s the set of people our super-expensive computers running rocket science level algorithms have decided you’re like”. Who would I, a mere mortal, be to then tell Twitter that they’re wrong?

    I think there needs to be some kind of admission of fallibility in the interface. It’s hard to do that without being too verbose, and having support copy. Maybe the answer is, after the Similar To You recommendations, a link saying simply “Disagree?”, which then makes the X’s appear. Might be just enough to make this interaction readily comprehensible, and to make purpose of the entire panel (as Josh has explained it) clear.

  22. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Douglas Greenshields, I love that “Disagree?” idea.

  23. Josh Elman said on

    I like the “disagree” idea too. We’re going to tweak the designs and move the primary ‘x’ or ‘disagree’ option on a ‘view all’ page which will feel more like somewhere you’d edit the suggestions than just the sidebar. This will let us tighten up the design too and list the similar users 2×2.

  24. Heath said on

    The thing that bothers me is the fact that sponsors can pay to be added to your “Who To Follow” list. That seems to be slightly deceiving as the rest of your list is based on peeps you might actually have common interests with. I understand Twitter needs to make money, but it feels deceitful none the less. Are any of those paid listings filtered in any way to see if they might actually be someone you would follow?

  25. Sophie Dennis said on

    I was wondering about the X – would it permanently remove that person as a suggestion for others, or just temporarily hide them from me? – so thanks Josh for clarifying that.

  26. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Another reason why it’s hard to notice the X there isn’t purely visual

    So agree. It’s not an “X”-type interface element, it’s just the letter “X.” It doesn’t telegraph “undo/delete/close,” the traditional functions of a visual “X” in web interfaces.

  27. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Sophie, I don’t want to speak for Josh, but based on what he has told us, using the “x” would remove the person as a suggestion for others. In my example, let’s say Eric Meyer was a TV fishing show host instead of a world-renowned CSS guru. The “x” would let me remove him, as he would not, in my judgement, be a person “like me.” In other words, it is there to let you correct errors, if any, in Twitter’s data analysis—or just to remove someone you’d rather not be publicly associated with. (For example, an ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend, business partner with whom you broke acrimoniously, etc.)

Comments off.