The Follower Slot Syndrome

The social messaging service Twitter, which has been called the Swiss Army Knife of online communications, has seen a few changes under the hood since the inception of the service. Among these are the hardcoded follow rule which was introduced on Twitter in late 2008. Those most hit by this rule are users who are unaware of the limits and are very generous with their follows. When I myself bumped into that limit, it gave rise to thoughts about how I use this service, what kind of value it has and how I need to follow and unfollow others.

Important stuff? No, not really. But then again it touches on some pretty important things, like our ability to speak and be heard via the online architectures we use. And that warrants some lengthy attention IMHO. I hope some influencers and “high profile” Twitter users will take note, reconsider their stand and build up their capacity to deal with larger information intakes.

The follow rule

Chances are you won’t have bumped into this limit if you’re new to Twitter, but if you follow many people, and specifically if you follow more users than follow you back (typically celebrities or other high-profile influencers), you’ll likely bump into it when you hit 2000 follows.

Before Twitter introduced this rule, following was free game. Everyone could have as many or as few followers and follows as they liked. Everything was open and one could be generous with one’s attention without fearing that one would “run out” of slots. This changed dramatically with this rule.

The basic rule is this : you can follow only +10% in excess of your number of followers after you hit 2000 follows.

Basically, if you’re followed by 2000 users, you can follow 2200 yourself. If you’re followed by 10.000 you can follow 11.000 yourself. This rule, while good-intended, has some bizarre effects when you take a closer look at it. Among other things, it raises significantly the value of the commodity on Twitter known as a follow (i.e. attention), and even more that of a mutual follow (mutual attention), i.e. someone who follows you where you follow that someone back too.

Background : “bait-following”

This rule was introduced to combat “bait-following”. This is also sometimes referred to as Twitter “spam”, but I don’t acknowledge there is such a thing as “spam” on a service like Twitter. Many users have experienced this particular obnoxious phenomenon. Some users, either by themselves or using tools which utilize the Twitter API will track you down depending on your profile description or keywords in your tweet track record and follow you. What makes them different from users who genuinely want to connect with you, is that they do this en masse, following thousands of users, in the hope that some percentage will follow back. Hence the baiting. Those who do follow back can then be exposed to the advertising or other spam-like messages such as affiliate links to products you’re really not interested in or links to services which “help” you get “more followers”.

In Twitter’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon to browse around and follow other users somewhat randomly and sometimes stumble over interesting profiles and make new genuine connections. But automated tools made it considerably easier to “exploit” the fact that most Twitter users were generally willing to follow back others who were interested in connecting with them (and maybe still are, to a large degree).

These tools and the users who employ them (I’ve experimented with some myself at one time) use Twitter as a broadcast platform. It is the same logic applied to the online medium as is daily applied to television. It doesn’t matter if you waste 99% of your audience’s time, if you can sell something to the remaining 1%. That may be enough to make it worth it. Trouble is, the 99% still think it is a waste of their time, and therefore using methods like these to “increase following” is doomed to dry out sooner or later, as most will quickly see through the scams and unfollow such scammy attempts at gaining some attention.

After the hardcoded follow rules, scammers must now unfollow all those users who don’t follow back (but this is comparatively easy with automated tools), but then they are free to repeat the stunt. In other words, this particular type of use of Twitter persists. It’s still very common, and there’s very little the hardcoded rules can do to prevent it, because basically Twitter is a very open platform which grants access to it’s data to a wide host of third-party tools (which, among other things, make it great).

Twitter misconceptions

I wouldn’t care about follow or follower numbers so much as I do here, but because I feel Twitter nurtures some misconceptions about their own tool, which will make it less valuable, to me and other users – and ultimately to Twitter too.

First, as I stated, it is hard for me to accept that the crude misuse of Twitter described above is spam. For anyone to deliver a message to someone on Twitter that someone has to follow that anyone first. So messages on Twitter are always solicited. That you have been tricked into soliciting the messages doesn’t make such messages unsolicited.

In my humble opinion, Twitter should have kept their service pure. They should have butted out. They shouldn’t have started becoming involved with determining what kind of interactions took place using their service. Twitter would have survived fine, in spite of the crude attempts to undermine it’s usefulness. They should have worked to ensure it stayed a strong platform, which could make it as reliable as a phone line, but way more powerful. Twitter is a strong versatile platform and people used it very creatively on their own, blocking users they didn’t like and following those they did like. It was brilliant.

But they did. Twitter as a company couldn’t just look quiet at the many paths it was conceived scammers went to undermine their service. Fear started to kick in, and demands came from some users that Twitter needed to regulate and filter conversations and connections. They started abolishing user accounts whose following behaviour patterns made them suspicious. And they introduced hard coded rules, with the aim to stifle that particular kind of baiting spam as described above.

Twitter has a perception of it’s own service as a stream of information, which has to be managed. Noone can manage an intake of more than 2000 followers. At least not without losing out on many messages. So the argument for such hardcoded rules goes. However, this perception is wrongheaded as an attempt to figure out how Twitter data is used. The truth is Twitter has no idea whatsoever about what creative ways users may take in the data in their streams. One user taking in a lot of information may analyze it with a piece of software Twitter knows nothing about. Another may write a tool which filters the incoming stream according to criteria Twitter wouldn’t ever understand. Fundamentally Twitter is optimized for filtering at the receiving end, as the information intake will almost always be much much larger than the outgoing information stream. What we need in other words, is not better ways to restrict access, i.e. hardcoded limits on the posting end of the information loop – but better filters at the receiving end.

Filtering the information intake

I’ve often had Facebook friends complain about the massive stream of messages from me coming their way, when I send my tweets via Ping.fm in that direction. True, some nerdy stuff in there which they could care less about, but I want to include them, not exclude them from my information circuits, that’s why I send it their way. If I know the precise recipient of a message, I will usually send a direct message or email to that person. But more often than not, there’s no direct recipient but the aim to strike a chord or strike up conversation and input, like when I write a blog post. Social messaging is sometimes referred to as microblogging, and that is perhaps a very accurate description of the way I use Twitter. I send it their way, because I hope some of it may create new connections, from where the conversation may rise. I may discover new things about my friends doing this, because I never quite know who possesses the information I seek or share my interests and concerns.

Increasingly, as recipients of large information flows, their job then is to learn how to filter what they take in (if they do not choose to block me or unfriend me because I am “too loud”). We all need to do this. We all need to learn how to filter out incoming streams, i.e. prioritize what is more important than something else. What we need to read before something else. What emails to reply to first. Etc. Increasingly, we also need to learn to code and use aggregation tools on our own as well as free licensing, if we want to be independent of the filters offered us by proprietary service providers.

A large information intake or large information stream may be overwhelming, but it has nothing to do with spam. Spam is unsolicited messages sent to a lot of people in the hope that a small percentage responds and buys something. Information streams can be managed, filtered, analyzed, put from one form into another form.

The hard-coded follow rule imposes a limit in the wrong end. To get the best possible dataset, you don’t limit the intake, you take steps to make it easier to process the intake, to make it easier to get the desired data out. Twitter has no real idea if their users have need for a small or large intake of information for their data needs. But this is not the only place where Twitter don’t _get_ Twitter. I’ve often come back to how Twitter displays a huge failure to understand the value of their own data, when they don’t allow access to the full archives of tweets. You can go back only to what corresponds to three months worth of tweets. This means that all this data cannot be retrieved, filtered, analyzed and brought to use by clever people who want to know something about social behaviour patterns, particular brands, viral effects and all other things thinkable and mentionable. Twitter has a pre-conceived notion of what Twitter is, and if users don’t use Twitter that way, they are wrong and must be corrected with hard-coded rules to use Twitter as Twitter was intended. But the truth is the versatility of Twitter has made it much larger than itself – it has outgrown it’s initial purposes by milelengths. If Twitter doesn’t get that (and the true value they can offer as a business), they risk running their service into the ground, because they don’t make it profitable.

Following back

Now, I recently provoked some debate and diagreement among some of my followers when I provocatively asked why they didn’t follow me back. Actually, the message was not really aimed at those who do follow me, but at those who don’t. By those I mean the wide host of celebrities and influencers which are known to have a large following on Twitter, but only follow a small host of people themselves. I follow a wide host of them, but hitting the 2000-follow limit forced me to re-consider a lot of them. In fact, I unfollowed at least 800 users who didn’t follow me back, in order to allow me to follow others, who do follow me.

When someone follows me and I feel they are real people who are interested in what I have to say, I usually want to follow them back. Not only as a token of courtesy and respect, but because I feel strange when talking to someone and I have no idea what they are like. I want that influx of ideas from others and I honestly don’t care so much if I manage to read _everything_ but it’s there and I can take that data, do a search, create a filtered feed and other things if I want to, when I want to. You can too, if you want to, and if you want to learn how to do it.

What stopped me from following others back? The 2000-limit and the many many users that I followed, who didn’t care to follow back. It says I can only have 200 “non-follower” users I follow, if I want to follow everyone back who follows me (and I usually do). So what provoked me is that while high profile Twitter users such as Barack Obama, Scobleizer and Guy Kawasaki follows me back, why can’t others? If they can, why can’t you?

To me not following someone back is a message saying “I don’t care what you have to say” or “You’re less important than me”. Less worthy of attention. I’m worthy enough to be in your stream, but you can’t be in mine. That is the wrong message to send out, no matter what you want to communicate using Twitter, it’s a bad way to start a conversation with anyone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being very selective about who you follow, but if you overdo it, you also risk coming off as arrogant and disrespectful, because you do not take part in the exchanges on an equal footing.

I don’t care if Obama, Guy Kawasaki or Scobles actually reads what I have to say. I care about the gesture. I care about them saying with that gesture that if you give me attention, I will give you mine back. Even if it is not true. They will not occupy one of the most valuable rare 200 slots I can allocate to only information intake. These may be reserved for others, typically high-profile users whose opinion and information is so important to me, that I don’t care if they listen to what I have to say. As a company or as most people using Twitter, you don’t want to bet on yourself being in that category. You should follow back. Why reach out (have a Twitter account) and then don’t want to listen to what people have to say? Indeed, what those few who’s already decided they want to give you their attention, have to say (if anything).

I don’t consider myself an atypical Twitter user. There are many bloggers, companies, organizations and other users who use Twitter because they have a message they want out. We want to reach other people, make connections with others who are interested in what we have to say and offer. But I just unfollowed a lot of startups and internet professionals, who didn’t take the time, were too disinterested or too lazy to follow me back. They lost what tiny piece of my attention they had. They didn’t need to. With a small gesture, they’d still be in. Would it matter? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But they’d have given a small but important gesture, which doesn’t cost them much but may – just may – give them something of value back some day.

If attention matters to you, i.e. it matters that you reach someone out there with whom your message resonates, you can’t afford to throw away the tiny bits of attention you’re afforded when you’re afforded them.

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9 comments ↓

#1 @bradhart on 05.13.09 at 3:13 pm

I have to disagree with the notion that not following back is saying ‘you don’t care’. First off twitter rarely sends me a notice that anyone new has followed. Yes, the notice option is checked and no it isn’t in my spam folder. Of the two thousand plus new followers that have graced me in the last few weeks I have received less than 50 follower emails. That is really beside the point, I wouldn’t and didn’t follow them back for the most part.

I’m not trying to be arrogant here, I simply am not interested in what most of them have to say, and as you point out we have new limits. Why am I not interested? That part is easy, they haven’t given me a reason. They chose to follow me and either did so with a third part bulk follow service like tweepular.com, took a #followfriday suggestion, or liked what I had to say. Those are all valid methods, but unless you @ or RT me I have no idea if you are interested in what I say, want to connect, or are simply people watching.

The point is if you want to be followed back talk to the people you are following about what they are talking about.

#2 4ND3RS (Anders Høeg Nissen) on 05.13.09 at 10:12 pm

Hi Morten

There’s a helluva lot of info in your post – a lot of things I’ve never really thought about concerning Twitter, so thank you for that!

Now, I was one of the people who disagreed with your tweets on the “rules” of following – and I also commented on your habit of doing multiple tweets about one subject (”a blogpost done as several tweets”).

About the etiquette of following:
It’s a multifacetted subject and we could go over it for a long time (perhaps some day we should) but for now I’d just like to say, that not following someone back is also for me a way of controlling the intake of information and an attempt to filter the datastream.

I may be an atypical Twitter-user (if you’re the typical kind) because for me Twitter works best if I feel that I’m in concact with interesting people – most often people I know or know of – that give me information, links, insights, etc. that I can relate to. For me that’s the conversation aspect of Twitter.
I have a limited amount of attention to give, and therefore I try to limit the number of people I follow. I can only handle so much incoming info, so many tweets.

That may be rude the way you see it, for me it’s a way to survive. And yes, there are filters and search tools and what have you, but this is how I’ve chosen to manage it.

When people I don’t know follow me, it’s fine – I just reserve the right to be discerning when I think about following back. If their tweets are completely off my topics of interest or even too few to judge properly, if they haven’t cared to post a profile photo or if they seem like “illegitimate” users I won’t follow back.
That may be insulting to some but I really need to control the incoming information stream. I may miss some good things that way, but that’s the price I pay. And the really good stuff will probably get retweeted by someone in my network anyway…

I can’t decide who gets to follow me -it’s their own choice – but I can decide who I want to follow. And yes, there are some people where I don’t care about what they have to say. They don’t have to follow me, I don’t have to follow them. I may be arrogant (or just socially challenged) but I also untangle myself from conversations or chats in the “real” world if I don’t want to talk to those people, find them boring, annoying or whatever.

And please don’t throw Obama, Scoble or any other users who have hundreds of thousands of followers and follows in my face. For them it’s a numbers thing – and many of those high profile users probably don’t even tweet themselves. They just like having thousands of followers and follows.
Oh, and just because they do something doesn’t mean I should, or even that they do “the right thing” or that I can’t use the tool in some other way without having to be labelled disrespectful by you.

Again, for me Twitter is about creating conversations and ideas in (relatively) small circles – circles where different users follow and have followers from other circles (or groups or networks or whatever you wanna call them), so that ideas get spread even if we do not all follow everybody else.

I actually feel my limit of follows hovers around 80 – right now I have about 100 or so, and I feel I’ve started to loose control.

That’s how it works best for me and I really object to being told how I should or should not use Twitter. It’s a tool. I use it the way I find is most useful – same as you do, even if you annoy me sometimes (sometimes not) by posting 8 tweets in a row (that are part of the same point/subject) that take up a lot of my screen estate and make me miss other tweets perhaps, because I only have so much time to devote to reading my Twirl-feed.
I will not tell you that this is disrespectful or the wrong way to use Twitter. It’s your way, knock yerself out!

Hope I don’t sound too grumpy, by the way. I really like a lot of your ideads and comments :-)

Ciao,
Anders

#3 Morten Blaabjerg on 05.13.09 at 11:00 pm

Anders, you don’t sound too grumpy, and I often do btw (have to work hard on that), so I wouldn’t worry about that :-)

I’m very sympathetic to what both you say and @bradhart says. If it works as a way to filter for you, great. But I maintain that “not following back” may convey a message which is counterproductive to the things you have to say. When you’re forced to unfollow a lot of people you’d rather not unfollow because they offer you value – but simply have to because they don’t bother to follow back, you may reconsider.

Take Clay Shirky (@cshirky) for instance, someone I have the deepest respect for and who’d I’d definitely include in my “200″ special intake category. He’s not following me back. And not only me, as of today there’s 16.557 other users who’s following him which he doesn’t bother to follow back (follow/following ratio 147:16,705). I’m not saying he isn’t friendly or that he won’t reply to every @ message he receives or take part in conversations. But from the outset it looks like he doesn’t really care about a lot of people. That comes off as arrogant, at least in my book – and I don’t think I’m alone. Again a lot may compensate for that and as said I’d follow his wise words no matter if he chooses to follow me back.

Shirky himself has a crucial point in his book “Here Comes Everybody” which contradicts what his following ratio conveys. When dealing with large intakes (say, as in online services like Flickr or in contributions to GPL-licensed software) one can’t just focus on the head of the power curve. The vital input may as well come from just one of the thousands of singular inputs in the tail. As a company, you can’t just hire the most popular posters on Flickr and get what Flickr do well, because the best or most appropriate photos may indeed come from the tail – from the one contribution, which adds that particularly valuable input. Now, if you cut off the tail, you lose every opportunity to get that input.

So far as information intake, Shirky doesn’t follow his own wisdom. To give him justice, he also says somewhere that he doesn’t believe in conversations on a large scale, which I suppose he uses to justify his modest intake/refollow statistics. Shirky frames this as the difference between “conversations” and “broadcasting”.

I disagree that you can’t have conversations on a large scale – this is what community is. I find that even though the number of people you follow increases, your ability to take part in conversations doesn’t diminish. Who says you have to be part of all the conversations? Some will suffice. Who says you have to _read_ everything? You don’t read everything in your newspaper, either, do you? Filters can be and is applied to the information stream. But if you shut out the stream, you can’t filter it, or you’re at least very limited to the filtering offered by someone else (in this case the filtering offered by Twitter’s webpage).

I disagree that conversations and broadcasting can continue to exist as separated concepts in an meaningful sense in this landscape. If anything I prefer to use the word conversations to describe what’s going on, because it emphasizes the mutual connection – and not one guy shouting into a megaphone to get his message out. If you maintain “broadcasting” you don’t use the medium to it’s fullest.

Now I could name other writers and theorists who doesn’t eat their own medicine when they’re not “following back”. But most are academics and don’t really sense the urgency of getting their message out – or are so wellknown they don’t need to care if they do.

But some who do care – or should care – about this are companies, in particular startups, as they can leverage considerable power using services such as Twitter.

Following back is an easy way to say “We like you, we’d like to have you as a future customer, business partner, consultant or client – tell us what you need, and we’ll do our best to help you out”.

And then, of course, follow up by monitoring what is being said – NOT in the feed offered by Twitter (that would likely be a big waste of time), but via the search filters (previously Summize), also offered by Twitter at http://search.twitter.com/

Guy Kawasaki actually has a good piece on how to use Twitter as a business and while he uses it in a way I wouldn’t, there’s some clearheaded advice in there : http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2008/12/how-to-use-twit.html

With Guy’s words, you need to reach those who others disrespectfully refer to as “nobodies” (to stay in “broadcasting” terms) : “the buzz of nobodies begets the attention of somebodies and not vice versa”. Everyone is your potential agent on Twitter, and often the greatest help come from the most superficial or distant relations.

Not following back as a business or professional is telling your customers or connections you don’t really care about them or what they have to say, but not in so many words. That is the signal. If you don’t want to convey that msg, you need to pay greater attention. If you do want to send that msg (to scammers and others who bore you), I’m fine with it. But don’t ask for my attention, if you don’t bother to take a look in my direction.

#4 Morten Blaabjerg on 05.14.09 at 1:15 am

As a case of how “often the greatest help come from the most superficial or distant relations” sometime last year I wrote on Twitter that my daughter was getting her teeth. It hurt and it gave her a slight fever. Someone (an internet professionel I had no prior exchanges with) was kind enough to give me the advice in the exact wording :

“try frozen peas for your little one, it numbs the gumbs and is good for her”

Fantastic advice! I would never ever had known or thought about that. It worked like a charm, and since then my daughter has had a preferrence for peas, both frozen, fresh and cooked.

But it’s a great case of what I mean about vital input on the “tail”. Now she could have given me that advice even though I didn’t follow her, but it made the connection mutual and opened up the opportunity for that helpful input.

#5 Morten Blaabjerg on 05.14.09 at 1:45 am

@bradhart – “The point is if you want to be followed back talk to the people you are following about what they are talking about.”

I agree, that is a good way to catch someone’s attention. But my point is not that I or someone else “wants” to be followed back. I say that if you have a message you want out, you’re foolish not to follow back. Because then you’re not only sending the wrong message. You’re also setting yourself up to be unfollowed when users hit Twitter’s hard limits. And you will _not_ get your message out. You lose possible agents for your msg and you lose what could be – at some time in some space – crucial input from the long tail of superficial connections out there.

What is great about social networking and social messaging tools is that they allow you to connect and communicate with a whole _lot_ more people than you could manage without them. Why then limit yourself and your attention span to the same very limited crowd of people you already know and feel comfortable with? The tools are there, and they are at your disposal. And if you don’t have a tool for you, you can build it and learn to build it yourself (or pay someone to build it for you).

#6 4ND3RS (Anders Høeg Nissen) on 05.14.09 at 4:13 pm

Again: lots of good stuff, especially on how and why to use Twitter if you’re interested in a big crowd and having contact with your users as a business, for example.

But I still maintain that I can use Twitter however I want. For me it’s very much a great IM-like tool for keeping in contact with “chosen people,” not just anyone who finds me on a list and follows me – perhaps without even considering who I am or what I want to tweet about.

#7 Morten Blaabjerg on 07.22.09 at 8:17 pm

Please note : The above six comments were reconstructed from Backtype copies after a server crash. However, timestamp details were irretrievably lost, why the timestamps which appear with the above comments are completely fictitious.

UPDATE 2/8 2009 : Managed to re-establish the time of posting for all posts except for my own.

#8 Mike Montano on 07.23.09 at 11:37 pm

Hi Morten,

Glad you were able to restore comments using BackType. We do in fact store timestamp details, but they may not have been saved in the correct timezone. If it’s an issue I’d be happy to point you to the API call you could use to retrieve the timestamps. If you figure out how much they are offset by it would be simple to correct.

Regards,

Mike

#9 Morten Blaabjerg on 07.26.09 at 7:37 pm

Mike, thanks for stopping by and offering to help. I really appreciate it. As they are the only details lost in the crash, I’d really like to have them, if you can deliver them. On the other hand it may be too big a fuss to make out of it, especially if it involves API calls and such things.

I like Backtype very much btw and predict you a bright & shiny future. I suggest you add the timestamp details to each comment on your site – which will be more helpful to someone like me than the “x hours ago” relative type information. Permalinks and timestamps are something sorely needed in the age of fluid commenting and twittering.

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