To Follow or Not to Follow; that is the Question


To Follow or Not to Follow; that is the Question: “

twitter-followers-elephan-train.jpgby Neal Wiser (@nealwiser)

Unless you are a Twitter user who immediately follows everyone who follows you, we have all experienced losing Followers because, for whatever reason, we did not follow them in return. To be sure, deciding when to follow or not follow is not only a personal decision, but one which is driving a growing debate in the Blogosphere. How this debate plays out may have a profound impact on how people use Twitter and how the service will grow in the future.

Although it’s still early in Twitter’s Evolution, the Follow Question is one that has no easy answer. Indeed, deciding whether or not to follow someone is a vexing question for both new and veteran Tweeters alike. The decision ultimately depends on a variety of factors as numerous as there are users of the service and while there isn’t any one right answer, two diametrically opposed positions have emerged. The challenge is that both present valid arguments. For analysis, I call them Reciprocals and Discriminators.

Reciprocals take the view that not only does etiquette require you to return a follow, but reciprocity is the quickest way to increase your Follower numbers. However, as your Followers increase, your timeline can become clogged with superfluous discussions. Even with tools such as TweetDeck, following multiple conversations is not easy.

Discriminators take the opposite view. They feel, among other things, that quality of followers, not quantity is the important factor. Ultimately, the decision depends on one’s reasons and goals for using Twitter, but there are Pros and Cons to each position.

twitter-followers-pros and cons.jpg

Growing Pains in 140 Characters or Less

Unfortunately, Twitter’s phenomenal growth complicates the situation. As the service attracts more users, some of them will discover new ways in which Twitter can be abused. The recent Twishing schemes and the hijacking of 33 high profile celebrity accounts are recent examples of behavior that may slow Twitter’s growth as users hesitate to join or follow out of fear.

twitter-followers-2.png While abuses are inevitable, users are fortunate in one regard; the very paradigm upon which the platform is based Push) places the power of connecting with other users in the hands of the users themselves. In fact, the Push paradigm has allowed Twitter to thrive with only two primary rules:

  1. If you like someone, you can follow them.
  2. If you don’t like someone, you don’t have to follow them (and they cannot reach you).

To be sure, Twitter is working hard to provide greater security. For example, they have suspended accounts for ‘suspicious behavior’ and offer ‘protected updates’ and blocking; but are these measures enough?

Does Twitter Need More Regulation?

Surely there are those who believe that Twitter needs greater formal regulation. Unfortunately, while security needs to be a top priority, it’s the very newness of the service that makes it hard to determine precisely what to secure against. Until then, users are going to have to use good judgment when deciding to follow someone.

There are ways to follow users without letting them know, but that also begs the question; why follow someone covertly? Even if you have valid reasons for secrecy, this defeats the purpose of social media (If you insist on doing so, one method is to subscribe to the other user’s RSS feed).

My Solution: Managed Reciprocity; a Balanced Approach

I personally find significant value in aspects of both Reciprocal and Discriminator positions, but how does one reconcile where the positions conflict? My solution is a strategy I call Managed Reciprocity.

Managed Reciprocity allows me to balance aspects of the two positions in a way that allows me to get the most out of Twitter and the relationships I forge there (individual results may vary). In short, it lets me maximize my relationships with my Followers by allowing me to better manage their expectations as both their numbers, and the numbers of their Tweets, increase. In order to get the maximum benefit of Managed Reciprocity, I have developed the following Guidelines:

Managed Reciprocity Guidelines

1. Know Your Goals: Twitter is a powerful tool that can provide you access to a world of wonderful benefits. From networking to participating in stimulating conversations to just having fun and making new friends, Twitter is better if you begin with a goal in mind. My goals are as follows (this order is constantly changing):

  • Network
  • Look for opportunities to help and mentor others
  • Look for business opportunities
  • Learn and grow both professionally and personally
  • Make new friends
  • Have fun

2. Have a Plan: In order to achieve your Twitter goals, you need to think about what Strategy and Tactics you will use to reach them. My strategy evolved from how I already use Twitter.

  • My Strategy: I use Twitter to scan what I call the ‘Buzz Layer’ for conversations I can participate in and/or to create opportunities to start conversations (subscribe to my blog’s RSS feed at nealwiser.com for forthcoming posts about the ‘Buzz Layer’). I also use it for discovering interesting information, learning about breaking news and developing relationships with my peers.
  • My Tactics: Any strategy is useless without planning the steps to take in order to achieve your goals. Effective tactics will allow you to:
  • Select the Tools that are right for you (see below).
  • Measure your progress reaching your goals.
  • Manage Your Time (Twitter can be an incredible time sink).
  • Maximize ROI (as in, making sure you use Twitter efficiently, not necessarily a financial return, although that will come soon).

3. Choose Your Tools: To effectively execute a strategy, you not only need the right tools, but to understand why you need those tools and what those tools can do for you. Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of third party apps and services to choose from. For more information; two great resources are Twitdom and (Twitter Fan Wiki). Be sure to do your research; read reviews and ask other Twitter users what they use. While I am constantly experimenting with new tools, here is my Primary Toolset:

  • TweetDeck: This is a Twitter Management application for the desktop. Even in its first generation it’s surprisingly effective and easy to use. As of this writing (January 2009), Iain Dodsworth, the creator of TweetDeck, just received venture financing, so we can expect to have significant and much needed improvements soon. I use TweetDeck to filter my ‘TweetStream.’ I have one column that accepts all of my Followers Tweets, and other columns with various filters and groups. I also regularly dip into the general stream just to see if I’m missing anything and to look for interesting voices.
  • Tweetie: Tweetie is an iPhone app that is as inexpensive as it is easy to use. It was also just updated with improvements to its functionality (including one questionable feature). For the mobile Tweeter, Tweetie is indispensable.
  • SocialToo: This is a new web-based service that provides survey tools (a popular and useful Twitter activity) and reports on changes in follower numbers and sends you a daily email listing all your new Followers and who has stopped following you.
  • Twitter Search:A fast and efficient Twitter search engine.
  • Friend or Follow: A nice interface helps you see who is and isn’t following you and whom you are following.
  • TweetStats: Offers excellent analysis tools to help you understand how you use Twitter.

4. Create and Post your Following Policy: Now that people are using multiple social networks, the time has come to let people know how you use each one and what your Followers, Friends, etc. can expect from following you. Your Followers have expectations too and they deserve to know if you are worth following. By presenting them with your Following Policy, you can better manage those expectations and thus the relationship. After all, having a fulfilling relationship with your Followers is what Twitter’s all about. The following are things to keep in mind when creating your own Following Policy:

  • Transparency: I have no secret Twitter agenda and neither should you. Be honest about what you want and expect to get out of Twitter and you will have a more fulfilling experience.
  • Length: Keep your policies short and to the point or else no one will read it.
  • Managing Expectations: Let your Followers know exactly what they can expect from you. It will go a long way to keeping them happy.
  • Accessibility: Post your policy on your blog, Facebook profile, or wherever you call home on the web. Also, put a link to it on your Twitter page, but you probably don’t want to post the entire policy there. Twitter can cover parts of your profile under different screen resolutions.
  • Honesty is the Best Policy: Follow your own Policy. Don’t deviate without a really, really good reason because if your Followers notice, and they will, you will lose friends. Note that I do mean friends, not just your total number of Followers, although that will happen too.
  • Include a Disclaimer: At some point, you may need to update your Policy. Include a short note explaining that this may happen.

My Following Policy

I established this Following Policy so that my Followers can clearly understand how, when and why I may or may not follow them back, and how quickly they can expect me to start following. To be sure, this is not my entire process. When I learn that someone is following me I usually do things like look at their Profile page, review some of their comments and Favorites, and look at who they follow and who is following them.

I highly recommend that all Twitter users adopt policies of their own. I believe it will help reduce churn and make Twittering a better experience for all.

twitter-following-policy.jpg

That’s it. It’s helped me and I hope it helps you too. I look forward to reading your Comments.

References and Further Reading (in no particular order):

© 2008 TwiTip Twitter Tips.

twitter-secrets.png

To Follow or Not to Follow; that is the Question

Related posts:

  1. Follow Me and Win a Prize – The Merit of Twitter Competitions
  2. Defining Twitter Goals: A Tip for Successful Use of Twitter
  3. Do You Automatically Follow Everyone Who Follows You? [POLL]

(Via TwiTip.)

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