Twitter to overhaul user list seen as partisan

Social-networking site Twitter plans to end a service that links prominent message posters with new users, a service that was criticised in California because of perceived unfairness toward
Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said on Monday the San Francisco-based company will overhaul its “suggested users” list, which links Twitter users with a pool of about 500 celebrities, sports figures
and politicians they might want to follow.

“That list will be going away,” Stone said at a conference in Malaysia. “In its stead will be something that is more programmatically chosen, something that actually delivers more relevant suggestions.”

Names on the suggested user list are selected by company officials. In California, Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were placed on the list, a move that greatly boosted their number of followers.

Republican candidates were left off until recently.

The difference in treatment drew outcries from good government groups and contributed to a decision by the California Fair Political Practices Commission to hold hearings next year. The commission plans to examine whether it needs to regulate how campaigns intersect with social media.

In the three weeks since an Associated Press story about the suggested user list, Twitter executives added all three of the Republican candidates seeking to replace Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is barred under the state’s term limits law from running in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

The switch gave each Republican a significant bump in followers, demonstrating the list’s reach and influence.

Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, who led the Republican field with 4 160 Twitter followers, jumped to nearly 61 000 followers. Former Congressman Tom Campbell went from 1 660 followers to 57 500, while state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner’s nearly 2 600 followers increased to 56 500.

By comparison, Attorney General Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic gubernatorial candidate, increased from 960 000 followers to one million during the same three-week period.

Twitter also added Carly Fiorina, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic US Senator Barbara Boxer next year.

The list’s expansion drew praise from Kim Alexander, president of the non-profit California Voter Foundation. She wants to see the site continue as an avenue for political discussion, saying it can serve as a valuable tool for voters who are just starting to get engaged in next year’s campaign season.

California Republican Party chairperson Ron Nehring, however, urged Twitter to drop politicians from its favorites list if it doesn’t end the list entirely.

“To include political candidates among suggested users is begging for some government entity to come in and regulate it,” Nehring said.

Barbara O’Connor, a professor of political communication at Sacramento State University who teaches classes on social networking and its influence on politics, said politicians could disappear naturally from the list if users are allowed to choose their own favourites. Surveys show most would not gravitate to candidates as their first choice, she said.

Stone did not say what kind of service would take the place of the suggested user list but said it could be tailored to new users’ interests. In an e-mail, Twitter spokesperson Jenna Sampson said the
company could provide no more details.

The popularity of Twitter, which allows users to post
140-character messages sharing everything from mundane details about their lives to major news, has soared. The number of users increased more than tenfold within a year to 54-million currently. - Sapa-AP

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