When reciprocity is anti-socialGood news: you don't have to follow people back on Twitter

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I've just read another blog post about someone who was accused of arrogance for not following people on Twitter just because they happen to follow him. And it's driving me crazy - crazy enough to have left a comment on his post, and crazy enough to adapt it below.

There are many people out there who will tell you it's a hard-and-fast rule of etiquette: if you don't follow back, you're a boor. (Some of them have suggested it's a crime.)

This arbitrary law of mandatory reciprocity actually makes Twitter less useful, because unless you're incredibly lucky, there are going to be people who follow you who aren't that interesting to you. Maybe they tweet about their cats all day. Maybe they're zealots for a religion, a political view or an operating system (cough) that you don't believe in, share or use. Maybe their entire Twitter feed is devoted to complaints that other people don't follow them back.

Or maybe they're following a few dozen people, but you have several thousand following you, and if you follow them all back, then it's going to flood your feed and you'll miss some conversations you'd really like to have.

The functional purpose of following someone is because you want to hear what they have to say. That's why Twitter created the feature; that's how they suggest you use it.

If you just want to show your appreciation to someone for having followed you, then courtesy already offers a tool for that: the thank-you. It's been around for millennia, and it has the virtue of being unambiguous. Twitter's pretty good at delivering it, too.

What's being invented here with the creation of arbitrary rules like following back isn't etiquette; it's a whole bunch of new reasons to take offense at someone else's behaviour. And when we tell people have to make a tool less useful in the name of being polite (which is what demanding that people use lists to follow the people they're actually interested in boils down to), all we're doing is throwing up barriers to genuine connection and conversation.

Isn't that the opposite of why we have courtesy in the first place?

Update: Jeff Haden, whose post sparked this one, has posted that he's reconsidering his policy of not following anyone on Twitter. "I won’t follow people just because they follow me. But I will start tweeting when I find cool people or ideas I think others might benefit from. I will start engaging in conversations."

Cartoon of one prehistoric person telling another, who is lighting a fire, "You doing it wrong." Caption: First ancestor of the social media consultant.



Steve says

November 13, 2011 - 11:06pm

I LOVE THIS POST! You should follow people that have something to offer you. Perhaps its insight, knowledge, a chuckle and even better would be a good laugh. To follow someone just because they follow you is just silly. The noise from all the conversations is too much. I'm flattered every time that someone follows me but i purposely keep my list of who I follow small. So that I can listen. It doesn't need to be a game. It shouldn't be a game.

Rob Cottingham says

November 14, 2011 - 3:04pm

Thanks, Steve, and I'm in complete agreement that it doesn't need to be a game. Or, put another way, "The Internet will not make up for what happened in high school." (Meg Fowler) Really, it seems so much of the drama online seems to be from folks (me included) trying to work through some trauma from Grade 11 Geography.

Greg Phillips says

November 14, 2011 - 8:08am

The auto-follow-back rule is what makes Facebook, Facebook. Twitter Is Not Facebook and I kind of like it that way. Both are fine; use them for different things.

Rob Cottingham says

November 14, 2011 - 2:55pm

Absolutely! And I'd add that different people use them differently, too; it's a mistake to take it as a personal affront when someone doesn't share your sense of how a particular network ought to be used. (Otherwise I'd be shocked, shocked that the writer of that original blog post doesn't use Twitter conversationally, but just as a broadcast tool. If that's working for him, mazel tov.)

Mike DeWolfe says

November 14, 2011 - 8:43am

I totally agree with your piece. That said, I do feel a tiny bit of moral squeamishness over the following thing.

Building up a big following gives you social media bragging rights. I've seen social media gurus with 120 followers and have scoffed. With my 500+ followers, I consider that I'm in no position to brag, so I participate in social media discussions, but I never sell myself as an expert.

You are right that you don't need to follow back, but many people tie following back to good manners. I know one guy who largely built himself to 29,000+ followers by following 30,000+ accounts and expecting the follow back. I'm not willing do that. I know my approach impacts my follower growth, but I think the ratio of follower to following speaks to your volume as a speaker; and a large follower-count 1:1 ratio just means you're a voice in a very large crowd.

- Mike (aka http://twitter.com/dewolfe001)

Rob Cottingham says

November 14, 2011 - 11:06pm

Sounds like a very thoughtful approach, Mike. Yeah, you can build big follower counts if you follow back... but how much of that represents actual attention, especially if most of the folks following you are doing the same thing? I'll take a modest following with whom I'm having actual conversations over a giant crowd that can't hear me over the din.

And for the folks who follow everyone back who follows them: if that's genuinely working for them, great. If they're finding themselves overwhelmed, I'd hope they reconsider.

Riyaz Habibbhai says

November 14, 2011 - 9:07am

Totally agree. I think a small percentage of people are worth following because they have something to contribute. I am interested in hearing how lovely Justin Beiber's voice is.

Rob Cottingham says

November 14, 2011 - 11:07pm

Quite lovely, actually. But I wish he'd do a few Clash covers.

Renee says

November 14, 2011 - 12:17pm

Agreed! In fact, I feel sort of sad when somebody who I find uninteresting follows me, because I'm like "If only you were as stimulating as *I* am..." But seriously. I follow people who talk about stuff I care about. I don't follow people who don't. Often, because of conjunction of interests and the reinforcement of seeking out people with similar ideas to our own, people who follow me ARE people I want to follow back. And that's nice. But that's it.

Rob Cottingham says

November 15, 2011 - 2:06pm

And that makes sense - especially since what we share on Twitter (and on any other platform) is such a thin slice of our lives. The fact I don't find someone's Twitter feed interesting isn't a judgement on them (which is how some folks seem to take it) but on whether they're sharing stuff that interests me. Fundamentally, it's a reflection on life being short, time being limited and different strokes being suited to different folks.

Robyn McIntyre says

November 15, 2011 - 4:08pm

In the early days of Twitter (when Guy Kawasaki actually wrote his own tweets), it was worthwhile to follow everyone that followed you because there wasn't anyone there who was not interested in tech and social media. It was easy to converse because you usually had common interests and time: minutes would go by without the twitter stream being updated with a new post. You had leisure to get to know one another and there was no such thing as a focused stream (except maybe for Scoble). So it kind of became a custom to follow back those who followed you.

Much has changed since then.

Frankly, I don't understand people who follow back automatically anymore. Stephen Fry used to do this until his follower count got close to 100K. I've got far fewer followers than he does, and I know I miss some of the posts I'd like to see (like those from Stephen). Can't imagine what Stephen's stream looks like and doubt he's even seen it in a while. Not to mention that all you have to do now is include a word like 'pilates' in a post and five 'bots for Pilates instructors will follow you immediately.

I read a quote that went something like, "other people's opinions of me are none of my business." Probably this won't work for a brand, but for just us folks, it works fine. You don't have to like me and you sure don't have to follow me on Twitter, even if I follow you. People who think otherwise are using Victorian ettiquette in a rocket-ship world.

Rob Cottingham says

November 28, 2011 - 9:19pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Robyn - and I'll have to remember that pilates trick the next time I want a quick bump in my follower count. :)

Matt Churchill says

November 20, 2011 - 12:50pm

If someone takes the time to follow me and has an interest in the content i'm tweeting, i'll always take the time to look at their profile and to see what they too are tweeting about. This doesn't mean of course i'll always reciprocate the follow, If you get hung up about being followed/not followed I figure you're kind of missing the point of the platform!

Rob Cottingham says

November 28, 2011 - 9:21pm

I know what you mean, Matt. Twitter's ultimately about words, not numbers!

Jeff Haden says

November 30, 2011 - 12:37pm

Thanks for the mention, Rob.  Great piece.

Joseph says

January 2, 2012 - 8:37pm

I'm happy to receive Twitter followers but I won't necessarily follow someone unless they have something relevant to say. This means different things to different people. For me "relevance" is sincerity, I enjoy connecting with real people not bots or spammers. I make it a point to publicly thank folks who follow me. Even if I don't follow them back, I scroll their feed and comment/retweet when I find interesting topics.  If they unfollow me simply because I haven't followed them back tells me about their true motivations.

I used to be amazed by the extremely large number of followers some Twitter members display on their homepages, but recently I've begun to wonder how much interaction do they have with each other. Following people with the goal of getting them to follow you back undermines Twitter's usefulness as a social and news media tool.

Providing value and engagement should be the primary goals when using Twitter.

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