This has been enough of an issue over the past few weeks that I felt it warranted addressing with a post. Indeed, it’s something I should have written a long time ago. As they say, better late than never. So, I present to you my Twitter follow policy, which comes bundled alongside a lot of bonus thoughts and observations. Feel free to pick out the bits that are most relevant; indeed, I encourage you to be selective, because that’s the point.
Why Do You Use Twitter?
For me, Twitter is a tool. I enjoy using it immensely – I’m very, very passionate about the platform – but it isn’t somewhere I go specifically to relax or unwind, and it isn’t somewhere I go to hang out or chat with friends. It can be all of those things from time to time, or during the course of any given day, but these aren’t the reasons why I use the service.
Increasingly, Twitter is work. I write about Twitter on this blog, and in my actual job I work with clients on their Twitter (and social media) campaigns. Hence, my focus tends to be on the business end. I use Twitter to position myself on the very edge of the information curve. I am looking for signal. And with that data comes an awful lot of inevitable noise, and it’s up to all of us to minimise that as best we can.
I also use Twitter to share information. Why do people follow me? I would like to think that it’s because my tweets contain interesting and timely links that have value. But the real value is in the connections and friendships I’ve made and developed with a lot of talented and very cool people, pretty much all around the world. These friendships are very important to me, as I would hope that they are to you.
What is of little to no importance is just blindly following somebody for the sake of it. That’s where the noise arrives en masse, and where the signal struggles to breathe. I used to believe completely in reciprocal following – that is, you follow me and I’ll follow you – but after the Mikeyy incident I started to be more selective about who became part of my network. I stopped auto-following, and actually began to really trim down the follow side of my network. All-told I dropped about 500 accounts, most of whom were feeds, robots, spammers, mass-marketers, inactive users, 24/7 self-promoters and good old-fashioned weirdos.
But I also dropped some regular folk, too. Not because they were bad people, but because the things they talked about and used Twitter for were not relevant to me. This isn’t a negative – nobody can be interesting to everybody, and nobody can be interested in everybody. There is no right way to use Twitter that is applicable across the entire network – but there’s a right way for me. And there’s a right way for you, too.
So I trimmed, and I cut back, and now I try to keep my follow number fairly modest. I’ve found that anything over 1000 means too much noise, and anything much less than about 500 means not enough signal. So somewhere between those numbers feels about right. Both of these parameters are probably going to change as Twitter matures, but at the moment it works for me.
Why I Follow You
You’re part of my network for a number of different reasons. Usually it’s simply because you’re interesting – the things you say have value to me. Other times it’s because you’re a leader or authority in your niche, and being part of your network benefits mine. Or maybe you’re just somebody I want to learn from.
And sometimes it’s just because I like you. You’re fun, you make me laugh, and you say a lot of the right things.
The reality is that if you encompass any of these elements there’s a good chance I will follow you. But it’s vital that you’re these things to me – not somebody else. One man’s tweet can be another man’s twerp, after all.
One of the best things about Twitter is that the open nature of the network means that valid and productive conversations can take place between a number of individuals who aren’t actually following each other. The direct message system is bunk, and really if you’ve got something to say you should be able to say it in public. You don’t have to follow somebody, or be followed by them, to generate value from the relationship.
I follow over 50 people who don’t follow me back, and continue to add to that statistic every week. Why? Because I find them interesting. Because what they say has value to me, and I pass that value on to the members of my own network. I work on the relationship with many of these individuals, and it’s great when that effort is recognised and they follow me back. But I don’t need that to see the value.
Conversely, I’ve had many industry leaders, celebrities, global brands, news teams and power-bloggers follow me, but I don’t just automatically follow them back, either.
The reality is that it’s pretty easy to get my attention on Twitter, and if you engage with me, make interesting observations, have strong (but positive) opinions and do other things that push my buttons then I will absolutely follow you. It may take me a while to hit the button – sometimes I think I’m already following somebody because there’s a considerable amount of engagement, and it then surprises me that I’m not – but I’ll get there eventually.
What I don’t respond well to, if at all, is feeling like I’m being harassed to follow somebody. That pushes all the wrong buttons, and if you spam my feed with any repeated request I’m going to ignore and then block you. To be honest, I’ll never understand why anyone would want to beg somebody to follow them back, or just randomly pop up out of nowhere and say ‘follow me’, with no prior attempt at engagement. Even if this approach ultimately worked, where’s the value in that connection?
This goes triple for the follow/unfollow/follow repeat-offenders. I will never follow you back. So give up already.
If All You Care About Is Winning, You’ve Already Lost
Of course, what a lot of this comes down to is numbers. MySpace started the obsession with adding huge amounts of people in your network. It became a race, and the person who had the biggest total was the winner. It didn’t matter that 99.99 per cent of the people in that network didn’t give a rat’s ass about you – all that was important was that when they tallied up the results, you came out on top.
Facebook attempted to diffuse this, moving the focus to real friendships and connections, and it worked for a little while. Then they introduced fan pages for celebrities, and now that’s all anybody cares about.
Twitter, too, has been obsessed with numbers, a process not unassisted by the suggested user list. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t. You don’t have to follow thousands of people. Indeed, the signal value on Twitter falls exponentially as your network size rises above a given point. With a few notable exceptions, those who follow tens or hundreds of thousands of people aren’t actually following anybody at all. If you check out their feeds they either rarely engage or do so with the same insular group of similar mass-following folk.
The ripple effect on Twitter means that, on paper at least, everybody is connected to everybody else. Any one tweet can theoretically reach the entire network, and this of course works for everybody. In fact, it’s best to think of Twitter not just as one giant network, but a matrix of millions of them, all linked via a central hub. This lends itself to being selective about whom you follow, placing a higher priority on relevance and value. Assuming your network is of a reasonable size, anything of genuine importance will work its way to you via retweets from other networks.
Which means that YOUR network should be as optimised as you can make it. If you go on Twitter to chat and hang out, then your network should be made up of people who like to chat and hang out. If you use Twitter to find business, your network should be full of prospects and leads. If you like celebrity gossip, follow all the celebrity blogs and magazines. Or a combination of any of these – the important part is that your network is and remains relevant and of value. Consider this: unless you’re looking to buy a house, there’s not much point in following lots of real estate dealers.
Perhaps this advice ranges somewhere between common sense and blindingly obvious, and in principle it is. But in practice, it seems to me that a lot of people do the exact opposite – they’ll follow anybody who follows them, and expect anyone they follow to blindly follow them back. As regular readers will know, I’m all about relationships – but the real ones take work, time and effort. Another +1 on your follower count means nothing if neither of you ever pay attention to the other.
I’ve said enough. Here’s the point, just in case you skipped to the end: I encourage you to develop your own Twitter follow policy. This doesn’t have to be something you publish – you don’t even have to write it down. Just think about it a little. Ask yourself what you want from Twitter, and shape your network accordingly. Put an emphasis on relevance and value. And remember: you’re under no obligation to follow anybody you don’t want to. The only person who matters is you.