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Why I Think @TheOnion Has Unfollowed A Record 485,000 People On Twitter

A few days ago, I was unfollowed by @TheOnion, the Twitter account of the much-loved satirical news site.

The Onion is one of the most popular feeds on the network, with well over two million followers. Back in the day, the account had a (possibly automated) follow-back policy, and they followed hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter.

The OnionThinking it unlikely that they’d singled me out for a personalised dumping, I assumed whoever it was that managed their social media campaign had decided that enough was enough, and pulled the plug.

So I checked out the stats. And while I don’t speak for The Onion, I’m going to go out on a limb on this one.

Earlier this month, the Onion peaked at a following count of over 487,000. On April 14, they unfollowed 30,935 people, and continued to purge users en masse each day thereafter until April 21, when they appear to have settled at the nice round number of 195.

In a 24-hour period between April 17-18, they removed 316,239 users from their follow feed.

Don't Cry, But @TheOnion Has Unfollowed (Almost) Everybody On Twitter

Overall, they’ve reduced their following network size by 99.96 per cent. Which means they’ve cut their noise by 99.96 per cent, too.

This is likely the biggest cull Twitter has ever seen.

(Twittercounter’s prediction for tomorrow, incidentally? -39,911.)

What about the impact on their followers? As we know, many people use various auto-follow and unfollow tools, and others just don’t like it when you dare to unfollow them, and will manually (and quickly) unfollow you back.

Interestingly, they’ve only lost a little over 1,000 followers, from 2,214,585 to 2,213,314.

Don't Cry, But @TheOnion Has Unfollowed (Almost) Everybody On Twitter

This represents a drop of just 0.057 per cent.

This may well change, but usually reciprocal unfollows are fairly immediate or not at all, and it’s testament to the popularity of The Onion that they’ve seen such a high level of retention amongst their fans.

Why have they done this? I’m sure they have numerous reasons, but likely it comes down to one main thing – as nice a gesture as it might seem, Twitter simply does not work if you follow everybody back.

If you need specifics, think about this – your direct message inbox on Twitter is bad enough when you’re following just a dozen spammers or auto-DMers. Can you imagine what it must be like when you’re following hundreds of thousands? Even if we take a trip to la-la land and assume that all of those people are legitimate, they’re still going to bombard you with DMs, and when you get to those kinds of numbers it must be so overwhelming that one of the few legitimate options you have is to just ignore the darned thing.

(And you wonder why people who follow tens of thousands are slow to respond to your direct message – assuming they even respond at all.)

The Onion’s example is extreme but not isolatedtargeted following is the only way this thing works, folks. And it doesn’t matter what tools you use – TweetDeck doesn’t help you follow a hundred thousand people any better than Twitter.com does. If you’re breaking your network down into bite-sized, manageable lists, then everybody not on the inside is absolutely on the outside. Why are you following anyone who you don’t think worthy enough to add to a list?

Let’s make up a Twitter user, and call him Steve. Steve’s a player. Let’s say he’s following 30,000 people, and he claims to manage all of this using his favourite Twitter app. The maximum Steve can add in a Twitter list is 500 people (I didn’t make that number up – it’s the law). Even assuming he has twenty carefully selected columns running in something like TweetDeck, that means 20,000 people aren’t getting much of his attention. All credit to Steve for responding to his mentions, but he can do that whether he’s following you or not – and you can still contact him.

People don’t like it when I say this, but most of the time, anyone who is following tens of thousands of people isn’t actually following anybody at all. It’s an illusion.

It pays to be selective. Reducing your following count by 50 per cent can have enormous benefits on how you use and interact with Twitter. Perhaps most vitally, it means that 100 per cent of your attention can now be shared over the remaining half, which now means they stand to get twice as much as they did before.

As The Onion have shown, if you’re doing it right then unfollowing, even in large numbers, shouldn’t be something that gives you pause. Don’t be afraid – let your people go.

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