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Spy on your Enemies or Competiton with Twitter Lists

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Although I mainly use this blog for tech and web-related business, I have strayed into politics from time to time, and have sometimes used events outside of my sphere of interest as a jumping-off point for posts. I am one of those bleeding hearts that cares about what’s going on in the world, and when an argument is brewing, I like to hear both sides before making up my mind.

This does mean, however, that I may occasionally wander into fields where I’d prefer that my presence went unnoticed. White supremacist websites for one, or hardcore Marxist anarchists at the other extreme. Still, it’s impossible to know how to combat your enemies if you don’t know what they’re up to, so I take a masochistic pleasure into visiting sites that make me scream and reach for a wine bottle.

The internet is, of course, free and unregulated, with no set of rules or tests of one’s political leanings before you can start a blog or set up a website. Long may that continue. The same goes for a Twitter account, where many of my erstwhile adversaries have established a presence. I’d like to know what they’re saying but following them might give them the impression that I am a fellow traveller. So what am I to do?

There is always the option of setting up a saved search, where various hashtags and keywords could be monitored, but that risks sweeping up those in the middle ground too, especially if a hot topic begins trending. I could check in on individual accounts intermittently, but there are so many people who I consider to be dangerously crazy that I would end up spending more time monitoring them than doing anything useful. RSS feeds are one thing; hourly rantings by conspiracy theorists are quite another.

Luckily, Twitter has lists. You don’t need to follow somebody to add them to a list, but it is a very useful way of gathering a number of similar accounts together to monitor a topic, or a particular group of people. On my UK-only account, I have three lists that I set up to make sure I sent the right tweets to the right people, and so far it’s working out well. But all of those people can see that I’m watching them, which I don’t mind. Being listed has encouraged some of them to follow me, so that’s OK.

Nevertheless, adding people to a list lets you know you’re watching them. Unless, of course, your list is private. Set your Twitter list as private and you can monitor whoever you want without them knowing anything about it. Forget political foes who you don’t have anything to do with: you can now track your competitors’ promotions and sales drives with ease. You will know when they are offering deep discounts on a particular product, or being criticised by customers for raising their prices. You can get advance notice of their sales drives and react accordingly. While a business you are in direct competition with might be more taciturn if they knew competing businesses were watching them, they will be more honest if they think nobody is watching.

I’m not going to say how many private lists I have operating at the moment — I wouldn’t want to spook anybody — but I will say that it has given me a brilliant insight into how other freelancers work, how they bid, and which clients are the ones to avoid. Should I thank them? Probably. Instead, I am more than happy that someone else has taken up the slack and done all the hard work for me. At some point, in the future, when we are competing against each other, I may mention it. Right now, I enjoy my one little sliver of competitive advantage.

[Image by LauraBurlton]

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