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 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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The Scary Part of Risking Yourself on the Web

Satheesh Kumar, developer of the Yet Another Autoblogger plugin recently wrote this post on the difficulties of conveying your enthusiasm for blogging to others around you. I can relate a lot to Satheesh’s experience, as he describes it here :

I have made a lot of fruitless attempts to bring them to the world of blogging. I have offered them free blog resources, free themes, add-ons etc. But no one was interested.

I found that my school has a high page rank website kept useless with only a few HTML files. I have asked the principal to set up blog hosting and offer free blogs to the students. It will not only develop their communication skills but inculcate a new culture in them. I have offered all helps. But none was interested ( both students, teachers, and the administration )

I have asked a lot of senior doctors with good practice and knowledge to start blogs in their favourite topics. Most of them said some unclear reasons for not blogging. One of these senior guys ( he was my teacher too ) said ” I knows how to send emails and to use orkut, but I haven’t entered complex things like blogging.” !!

I tried a lot to confess him that its simple like email and Orkut. I clarified that he can publish a blog by just sending an email to a secret email id. But no one was interested !!!

Resistance to new technology, new services and new ways of thinking is natural. We are all animals of habit, who hate unneccessary disturbances and like rhytms, customs and habits, which we have become accustomed to. It’s easy to perceive of the internet or particular phenomena related to the internet as threats best to be avoided.

On a personal level, one reason blogging is scary is because you put yourself on the line. If you write something and put it out for public consumption, you risk looking stupid, ignorant or otherwise become exposed. Most people don’t like to be exposed. They like to hide. They like to let others go first, so that they can watch from a distance and enter the new domain, once it’s been defined and secured by others.

But does this do it for the internet? I doubt there is or will be such a thing as a defined and secure internet. You have to risk it. You have to expose yourself. There’s no going away, no hiding behind others. Because the internet is about meeting other people. Some of these you already know, others you enjoy more distant relations with, and yet others you have yet to meet. You can’t hide if you want to connect with someone. It is the real you, you want to show, if you want to be taken seriously. And it is the real you, others want to connect with.

At least if you want to yield the power of this new space and learn to embrace new ways of thinking, working and communicating, you have to risk yourself, like Satheesh, myself and millions of other bloggers, twitterers, wiki editors, and other participants of the digitally networked information economy.

There’s a slight danger that the prejudices and fears about online activities such as blogs, twittering or wikis will widen the gulf between people who resist new technology and those of us who are rapidly getting sucked in and fast learning new ways.

On the other hand, I’m hoping we can do a lot to attract others to “jump in”, even though it’s uphill a long way. I find Facebook is a good place to start, so I use every opportunity to post links there for my blogposts, and to crosspost tweets to Facebook as well, in order to make people in my network curious about what’s going on in other places. Curiosity is king, I hope. But ultimately, I want people I know to leave the confines and false safety of Facebook and enjoy the full range of opportunities available to them, once they learn to embrace them. Because this, I feel, will empower them. They can be the ones who define who they are in this space, and what they’ll use this new space for.

Ultimately, resistance is futile. However, there’s nothing to be scared of. How could there be?

We’re not going to be senseless web junkies. To the contrary, what is happening is an awakening, an image often invoked by Lawrence Lessig, like in this great, thoughtful article on Lessigs talk in Dona in Qatar in 2007. We’re in the process of extending our methods and communication on a truly global scene and unprecedented scale. There are grand shifts in power taking place right now – from those who rely on the tested and tried methods and institutions of yesterday, and those who embrace and develop new methods and institutions, rooted in use of new technology and new social opportunities which arise from the clever use of new technologies. The order of the political landscape is changing. And it is changed by you and me.

Then again, this is really scary to a lot of people, especially if you insist on your old ways in spite of what’s going on. This is scary, if you do not feel anything in your heart. If you have become so accustomed to living by another man’s rules and definitions of the world. If you are not curious to learn about the world. If you’ve got enough in yourself and do not want to embrace other people. But I can’t believe that is really the case.

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Contextualized Search

I’ve previously written about the merits of attributing value to the context of finding information, rather than on any particular piece of information. This makes sense in an environment which literally explodes with new information, and shows no signs it’s gonna stop in any foreseeable future.

Google seems to think so too. After all, this is what Google do, and do really well. But it’s true no less of a somewhat overlooked product of Google’s. I’m talking about Google’s Custom Search. This service allows anyone to composit their own search engine, and place it on their own website. More accurately, your custom search engine filters Google’s index of webpages. Say you want a search engine on your site about your niche subject only to return results which relates to your site. It’s simple : type in your site name, and allow Google to show results from your site as well as all the sites your site links to. Or you can be even more specific, or list a range of sites you want results to be taken from. Or you’d like Google to still show results from the web, but emphasize results from your own site – this is also easily doable.

The only problem so far with Google’s Custom Search has been on the one hand that Google’s crawlers don’t seem to index every website too tightly and too frequently, and on the other, that results are still based on PageRank. Say you want your users to find a great piece on your blog about a particular subject, when they search for that subject, but that piece isn’t greatly linked to by other sites or articles. Chances are, that Custom Search will show a largely irrelevant, but greatly linked to article from another site, or simply not show that post at all, if it hasn’t been properly indexed. Your built-in blog search, such as WordPress’ search, will find that article very fast, because it searches your database directly. For smaller sites, local search as we know it, is still much more effective.

However, as sites grow and we as internet users and bloggers spread our activities over many sites and platforms, platform-specific search is too limited. We begin to look for more tailormade solutions. Google’s Custom Search is one, but there are others who want a piece of the action.

New kid on the block

Lijit is an internet startup based in Boulder, Colorado, which offers a promising version of “local” or “contextualized search”, which searches one’s blog, “content” (on sites such as YouTube, Flickr and many others) and the network of sites and “friends” your online activities connect you to. We’ve already created a Kaplak search engine powered by Lijit, and the Lijit widget is featured in the outer right column on this blog. I think Lijit could potentially be a very useful addition to the Kaplak toolbox. I plan to expand this search engine with further feeds and sites as our network and activities grow.

When I first tried Lijit, I wasn’t satisfied with the search results. I searched for a direct title in one of our blog posts, and it didn’t come up. As the impatient web customer I am, not hesitant to make a fuss about my problems with a free online service – on another free online service, I posted my quibbles on Twitter. It turns out, Lijit is on Twitter too, and so is Micah Baldwin, who works for Lijit and took time out to answer my quibbles.

It turned out Lijit based their first version on Google’s Custom Search, while developing their own web crawler. Switching Kaplak’s search to Lijit’s own crawler was a huge improvement from Google’s occasional crawl, and made me look much more enthusiastically at what this small team of extremely talented people are doing. I take my hat off for a company which acts so swiftly in response to “customer” sentiments, and make it a priority to help their users along with such friendliness. There are a lot of companies who could learn so much from Lijit. Micah and Lijit gives the expression “listening to the groundswell” a whole new meaning.

I like the freshness of Lijit and I like the results after being switched to their own crawler. I have only a few quibbles with it now. It’s got what I’d call some weaknesses in the versatility department, because I can’t control and finetune texts, messages and included sites/webpages as much as I’d like to and was quickly getting accustomed to in my short period of experience using Google’s Custom Search. For instance, I found all of my network automatically included in the search engine, where I’d like the opportunity to handpick whose links got to be included. Lijit’s search engine also wants to categorize results very neatly into “my blog” (even though the Kaplak Blog is not precisely “mine” – it’s the company blog and maintained by me, but not “mine”), “my content” and “my network”. What if we (which we’re probably going to) put the widget on our wiki? – that’s not exactly “mine” either. Our Kaplak universe is not so neatly organized, and while I do like the “Lijit picks” category, I prefer being able to scrap all categorization schemes altogether, get our own adsense stuff on the search results and just get on with finetuning and putting in more sites and feeds to give our visitors the best possible experience.

Lijit can potentially be a great key to tying together the many different platforms we operate on in Kaplak – and one we’d even pay for, if they included premium options we needed. As a company, we still do need search, and if Lijit could potentially even crawl user and product profile pages on our later-upcoming Kaplak Marketplace, we’d have something here, which we’d probably like to pay good human money for.

Conversational search

You can find most of my conversation with Micah via Summize, an online service which has built a search engine on top of Twitter, searching conversations on Twitter in realtime.

Imagine a service which have taken upon itself the daunting task of searching all things on Twitter instantly and is capable of threading and translating posts to and from numerous languages – globally. Then you have Summize.

Using Twitter a lot these last few months, I’ve found Summize indispensible to keep track of tweets, users and subjects. I’ve also used it for market research, i.e. “listening” to what other users are twittering. I find this stuff utterly incredible. There’s a lot of things happening in the search business these days.

I’m sure this is only the beginning.

[EDIT : Twitter's acquisition of Summize has broken the above link to the Summize search with my conversation with Micah. Here's a similar search on the new which supposedly replaces Summize...]

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