It’s something of a weekend tradition: the Grand Dust-Up, when the Usual Suspects in social media takes sides and argue the issue of the moment. It’s good clean fun — an excuse to avoid interaction with family and exposure to sunlight.
Over the Christmas break, a new Twitter search engine, Twitority, made its debut. As a development project, it’s a fascinating story. Users demanded a better Twitter search engine, and users built one (note to Google: here’s another market to despoil).
What makes Twitority different from Twitter’s native tools is that it claims to be an authority based engine. And here’s where the conversation really started:
What constitutes ”authority” in social media?
Nice try, but …
To Twitority — which I believe its developers would admit is a first generation stab at this sort of thing — authority is the number of one’s followers. The shortcomings of this approach are obvious. There are people in Twitterholic’s Top 100 with many thousands of followers, for instance, who are at best casual users of the service. Popularity isn’t necessarily the same thing as authority.
Techcrunch floated a more interesting idea, It’s Not How Many Followers You Have That Counts, It’s How Many Times You Get Retweeted. But re-tweets remain linked to popularity: the more followers you have, the more likely it is that someone will re-tweet you.
While there’s no doubt that Twitter users are eager for better search tools (how else will we know what perfect strangers had for lunch?), I rather suspect the attempt to quantify the idea of “authority” as a metric will prove slippery. And here’s why:
In social media, there is no authority.
Not authority as it is being discussed. Because in social media, authority doesn’t extend from its participants. Authority is vested in information and its relevance to users.
“But,” I can hear someone saying, “If a Mike Arrington or Jason Calacanis has something to say, I’m certainly going to listen.” And I’m sure that’s true — if they’re talking about building a tech news site or a human powered search engine. These are areas in which they have well-deserved expertise. But you wouldn’t ask them how to run a car company. Their answers would be as uninformed as the next guy’s.
You are the best measure of authority
It’s been said over and over again: social media is social. You build your network. You decide what to share. You decide what interests you at the moment. Your experience is going to be very different from mine, and that’s terrific. But the ad hoc nature of social media atomizes traditional concepts of authority. We may establish trusted networks, but it’s the relevance of information which really matters.
So attempting to apply a Technorati-style measure of authority to a dynamic network like Twitter is anachronistic. Not that Technorati’s measure of website authority was ever really of much value.
We need better social media search tools. But authority is a relative metric, and we’d probably do better with more objective ways to sift data (such as intelligent agents which remember user behavior). Ignore calls for old school, monolithic ways of measuring information authority. It’s no coincidence that this concept is being championed by those who stand the most to gain by its adoption.