Using Twitter Lists to Follow Without Being Seen

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 7 September 2013
Back in 2009, Twitter effectively acknowledged that there were two types of following. The kind of following users want everyone to know about, and the kind of following they want to keep to themselves.

The solution came as part of a new feature which really set out to address another problem: the problem of overly ‘noisy’ and completely disorganised timelines. If you wanted only to read messages from people who tweeted high quality humour, or news, or whatever, then you’d typically have to plough through mountains of other stuff (often utter rubbish and borderline spam if, like many users, you tended to follow back out of politeness). So Twitter introduced Lists – a way of grouping tweets into readable, manageable sections. The user could create a List for news, a List for humour, a List for close friends or family – whatever they wished. They’d then have separate timelines for each of the groups of people whose messages they actually wanted to read.

Lists created as big a problem as they solved in some ways, because once Twitter users knew they could isolate only the accounts they wanted to read into a new timeline, any concern about their main timeline went straight out of the window. Lists therefore gave users licence to follow thousands of accounts, just to gain followbacks, without any real intention of reading what they followed. Lists, for some users, were the final nail in the coffin for meaningful following.

But Lists have also thrown a lifeline to the privacy-conscious. The two key properties of Lists which make them valuable in this respect are that: a) you don’t have to actually be following the accounts you add to a List, and b) you can make the List Private, so that those you add can’t see you’ve added them. Simply, if you want to follow a load of people without them knowing you’ve followed them, you can create a List, make it Private, add all your chosen accounts, and for convenience, bookmark the List in your browser. Every time you click the bookmark, you get your own private timeline, which you can amend any time you like. Here’s how it’s done…


You must have a Twitter account for this, and be logged in. If you want to make timelines without a Twitter account, you can (see my Following Anonymously on Twitter article), but it's much harder to add or remove accounts once you've made those timelines.

So, to get started, log in, click on the Settings cog at the top right of your Twitter interface, and select Lists, as shown below. …

Twitter profile showing Lists selection

Next, click on the Create button to initiate your List. You’ll need to give your List a title, and very, very importantly, mark it as Private, as shown below. If you don’t mark your List as Private, the people you add to it will know you’ve listed them, and the whole point of this exercise is to avoid that. However, when you do mark your List as Private, only Twitter will know who you’re ‘following’ in this way. The yellow highlighting below is mine, and won't appear on Twitter…

Twitter Create a new list dialogue

All you need to do now is build your private timeline, by adding accounts to your List. That’s easy. As soon as you see an account you want to privately follow, click the dropdown just to the left of the Follow button, and select Add or remove from lists…

Twitter Add or remove from lists dialogue

Finally, tick the tickbox next to the name of your List of choice. After you've done that, the account will be included in your timeline - you don't have to 'save' anything. You can add more accounts to your List anytime you like. Don’t forget to bookmark the List page's URL in your browser, so you can quickly and easily access it as your main reading page. The final page will look something like the one below. A totally ordinary Twitter timeline, except the only people who’ll know about it will be you, and Twitter…

Twitter List timeline


Yes. Twitter watches everything you do when you’re logged in. I’ve tested Twitter’s privacy quite extensively, and I’ve even had accounts I’ve never followed or listed influencing the follow suggestions – purely because I’ve added the usernames to a Search Widget. This is the reason I suggested that the privacy-conscious should take the precautions described in my Following Anonymously on Twitter article.

Incidentally, if you feel that using Private Lists to follow on Twitter is not private enough, you can create follow timelines even without having a Twitter account. The full details are in my Following Anonymously on Twitter piece.