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What Twitter Lists Say About President Obama, Sarah Palin And You

"Patriot" or "wing nut?" Thanks to Twitter Lists, Internet users have a whole new way of defining how they see others, from Sarah Palin to even you. Al Grillo / AP hide caption

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Al Grillo / AP

"Patriot" or "wing nut?" Thanks to Twitter Lists, Internet users have a whole new way of defining how they see others, from Sarah Palin to even you.

Al Grillo / AP

In the last few weeks, a new feature available on Twitter has taken its users by storm. It's known as Twitter Lists, and it lets you group Twitter users by any category you wish to create for them. Lists are a handy way to sort the people you follow on Twitter, but perhaps they're more than that. Maybe they can also tell you a bit about how people actually perceive who you are.

The idea behind lists is simple: you choose a word or phrase that relates to various people you know on Twitter, such as "friends," "journalists," "Floridians," etc, and assign those people to it. For example, I've created a list called tote-baggers, for people I know who work in public radio and public TV. (Get it? Tote bags? Never mind.) Anyone on Twitter can choose to subscribe to it, which means they can easily follow the tweets from all the people I've added to the list.

So what can you learn about yourself from looking at the lists you're on? For one thing, being added to a list suggests that you're potentially interesting enough to share your tweets with other Twitter users — or at least have your tweets categorized in a way that's helpful to someone. But for me, the most intriguing thing about lists is the variety of names of the lists themselves, because they can give you a sense of how other people define you.

Take me for example. As I'm writing this, I'm on just over 300 lists. More than half of the lists that include me define me as being affiliated with the news media, including 108 lists with the word "media" in it, 38 with either "journalism" or "journalists" and an additional 33 lists with the word "news" in it. Just over 10% of the lists I'm on define me as being involved in social media, with words such as "social," "social media," "social web," etc. And then there are all those random ways of categorizing me, such as by geography ("DC"), my profession as they perceive it ("pubmedia," "journos-politicos-wonks," "academics") or specific perceptions about me ("nerdery," "famous-in-certain-circles," "idtakeabullet4", "loud").

List name analysis can get really interesting when you're looking at people who have large followings on Twitter. For example, with more than 2.5 million followers, @barackobama is one of the biggest accounts on Twitter. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the president has been added to more than 16,000 lists already. I took a large sample of these lists - 4,000 of them to be exact — and analyzed some of the words used to categorize President Obama on user lists. The most common words used were "politics" and "politicians," used to describe Obama on 792 lists. In second place was "news," which accounted for 739 lists. But not far behind in third place were various forms of the word "celebrities," which added up to 639 lists, as well as an another 161 lists using the word "famous." Only a very small number of lists categorized the president based on his ethnic background, with 7 lists using the word "black" and no lists using the phrase "African American." Meanwhile, the president could also be found on 6 lists with the word "brand," "branding" or "brand marketing." A total of 28 lists described him with the word "love," though none used the word "hate." Another list categorized him among "enemies," while 30 classified him among "friends."

One the whole, the words used to categorize President Obama were matter-of-fact. The same holds true for the Twitter account used by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin while she was still in office. She's been added to more than 1,200 lists, and the majority of the list names are pretty standard, such as "news" or "politics." But stronger words and phrases come through as well, capturing the polarized attitudes people have about her. On the one hand, you have Twitter lists that categorize her according to their political or religious support, such as patriots-and-politics, pro-life, femalefreedomfighters and influentialchristians. In contrast, people who disagree with her sometimes used very caustic language to categorize her on their lists, such as asshats, wingnuts haters and douchebags. Interestingly, despite the polarization that surrounds President Obama as well, there didn't seem to be anywhere near as many of these list titles that were purposely insulting. Can that be explained by a greater respect for the office of the presidency or him personally? Or the political leanings of Twitter users in general?

Of course, all of this is rather unscientific; I did this analysis by copying and pasting list names into a spreadsheet and counting off various words. It would be interesting if someone could create a tool that could grab the names of all the lists including a particular twitter user and run some sentiment analysis on the words used in the list names, or perhaps group them in a tag cloud based on frequency, a la Wordle.

Either way, I think Twitter Lists are definitely worth exploring further, as they're a new way of gauging a person's influence or even trustworthiness online - at least in a cursory way. Because a Twitter user actively makes the choice of adding someone else to a list, it's tantamount to saying to the world, "check out this person." It's not necessarily an endorsement of you and your beliefs, but it does suggest that others might want to pay attention to you. And the language used to couch that suggestion might be able to give you a small sense of how the online world perceives you.

In the meantime, though, you can always just skim through the lists manually and ponder what they truly mean about you — if they mean anything at all. If you're on Twitter, just go to, log in and click the "listed" link just below your avatar. What do you think the lists you're on say about you?