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For some, it's a travesty. For others, it's a source of jealousy. And to a few, a spot on it is worth big bucks.

I'm talking of course about Twitter's suggested user list, or SUL. There's been so much talk about it that a few months ago, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone took the time to remind everyone why the SUL exists in the first place.

Case closed, right? Not anymore thanks to Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, who told attendees at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco yesterday that "I desperately want to kill it or evolve it". What does that mean? Whatever comes after today's incarnation of the SUL should be "Twittery and democratic", Williams stated.

That might make Twitter purists feel warm and fuzzy inside but in my opinion, it's probably not a good business decision. Why? For the very reasons laid out by Stone in his blog post:

When you don't follow any other accounts on Twitter the product is not as relevant as it could be. To improve the user experience, we started suggesting some accounts to follow. As a result, new users are much more engaged and active.

This is a big deal for Twitter. According to Nielsen, approximately 60% of new Twitter users quit within a month. And of those who stick around, a considerable numbers remain small-time consumers of content.

The implication for Twitter: giving people a reason to stick around is really, really important. And, given the numbers, it's clearly a challenge. So how to do this? Well, obviously the SUL isn't going to perform miracles (it's not working wonders now if Nielsen's figures are to be believed) but it is one tool that Twitter has to help new users find the most interesting people to follow. From Lance Armstrong to Martha Stewart, there are plenty of suggested users for the mainstream audience. And for techies, suggested users like Chris Sacca (former Googler turned angel investor) and Dick Costolo (founder of FeedBurner) are there too.

Is the SUL perfect? Of course not. But that doesn't mean that should be ditched. And it also doesn't mean that how it's created should be a "democratic" process either. After all, the trending topics list provides ample support for American playwright Lillian Hellman's observation that "Decision by democratic majority vote is a fine form of government, but it's a stinking way to create".

Frankly, given just how popular Twitter is and the ever-increasing number of really interesting people using it, I'd argue that Twitter should expand the SUL and make it more prominent. When someone signs up, why not ask for his or her interests and match those to suggested users? And why not take it a step further by automatically setting new accounts to follow those suggested users unless the new Twitterer opts out?

Obviously, the SUL needs to be kept simple no matter how it is evolved. Which means that some people aren't going to make the cut. C'est la vie; life isn't fair. You can't please everybody all of the time and nobody ever created a great product (or made money) trying to. Inclusion on the SUL isn't an entitlement just because someone considers himself a "pioneering user", and those who complain that it disproportionately benefits celebrities, for instance, fail to answer the question: "so what?" Big brands, celebrities, athletes, prominent media personalities, etc. are always going to receive the most attention, no matter where they go and when they arrive.

The point of the SUL is, again, to help new Twitter users find interesting people, and thus interesting content and interactions. No matter what it does with the SUL, Twitter shouldn't forget that since it's interesting people, interesting content and interesting interactions are what make the service tick in the first place.

Photo credit: 7son75 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 21 October, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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