Is following someone on Twitter establishing a social contract?

I am fascinated by something I am seeing on Twitter, where I have recently changed my following strategy. Until a week or so ago, I basically wouldn’t follow anyone unless they were a close friend. I called it my “house rule”, that is, that I wouldn’t follow someone unless I knew them well enough to invite them into my house.
Now I am consciously and experimentally following completely random people, upwards of 50-75/day, by letting the digital zeitgeist point me towards them. I find someone who is an interesting Twitterer and then scour the list of who they follow to see if I can find others who are also worth following. A click of the “Follow” button and blamo, I’ve added someone else to those I am following.
When I constrained myself to following friends, I never got a single auto-DM (a direct message to me from their Twitter account sent by a ‘bot of some sort) and was blissfully ignorant of what others were complaining about. By spreading my net wider and having almost random follows I now understand what people have been kvetching about vis-a-vis the corruption of basic Twitter functionality.
What am I seeing? Here’s a typical message (and yes, the names are not changed to protect the innocent. After all, there’s no implied confidentiality for someone who doesn’t know me sending me a DM marketing message that I did not solicit, is there?)

@stephen_botkin

“Thanks for the Follow! Would You Like to Know How To Dramatically Increase Your Followers? http://bit.ly/LNb7x”

(I’m not going to make those clickable links, you can explore these on your own)
Now before I go further, let me say that I have two motivations for spreading my net wider: I would like to gain more followers and I have now verified experimentally that a meaningful percentage of people who you follow will indeed follow you back.
More importantly, I am very aware that there’s a resource location problem with me having an incredibly narrow set of people I follow: I never stumble across new and serendipitous information or ideas.
It’s a classic computer and information science problem, actually, and one I’ve been chewing on for many years in my various projects, including my time years ago as a research scientist at HP Labs.
If the above were the only marketing DM I’d seen, that would be one thing. I’d think “okay, it’s cool to explore ways to monetize Twitter this way”, but what’s amazing is that I am seeing about 4-5% of the people I follow have a marketing auto-DM that they’re sending me.
Here are a few more:

@WordPressRocks

“Thanks for the follow! Increase your Twitter following and make some extra $$! http://bit.ly/4pSb5”

@jcwinter

“Thanks for the follow! Check out my free traffic secrets unleashed ebook at my site! http://linkbee.com/unleash”

@stevepohlit

“Hello and Welcome! Thank you for the follow and I am likewise Free biz report @ http://b2cmarketing.biz”

@joey_smith

“Interested or New to Internet Marketing? Take a Look at this IM and Social Media Training Power Blog – http://bit.ly/1ZlvdP – love feedback!”

@furniturer

“Thanks for the follow! Earn $$$ With The Fastest Growing Site. http://bit.ly/x1yrP”

There are more, plenty of ’em, but I have to wonder, are they all pimping the same Twitter ebook at the end of the day? 🙂
More seriously, is following someone an implied relationship wherein they can reasonably respond by pushing out some aggressive marketing material my way? Am I at fault for either a) following them or b) being surprised that they would push these marketing tweets out to me?
I believe this is a core dilemma of the social media age: what kind of relationship is implied when I follow you on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, subscribe to your RSS feed, or even bump into you on a location-aware iPhone app?

12 comments on “Is following someone on Twitter establishing a social contract?

  1. It’s really too bad, but anywhere an open system is created on the net, spam is sure to follow.
    For example, I have an old forum online that is now filled with nothing but spam. It’s unfortunate that the cost of this type of marketing practice, and I lump insta-DM type practices in the same boat, is so cheap.
    Anyway, more on topic, I think “contract” is too strong a word. And, unfortunately, in the psuedo-anonymous environment of the net people are obviously willing to overlook common decency in the effort to make a buck.

  2. It’s like Chill Dude, you are taking things way to seriously. Like having auto responder on twitter is like having an answering machine. Some will have good messages, some will have bad and some will be Totally Awesome.
    It seems a lot of etiquette people are really like over controlling and don’t understand the value of the freedom self expression and being one own self. That means people don’t need external validation to have right to be them.

  3. Dave:
    “Contract” is too strong – more like “door cracked open just enough to allow the followee to say hello” is my interpretation.
    I use auto-DM to thank folks for following me, and reluctantly (and only recently) that message includes a link to our home page. I think this is even pushing it. I would like to have a setting in Twitter that allows me to filter out all [auto]DM’s with links – not sure that’s possible.
    I’ve sent about 1,500 auto-DM’s to followers and only one complaint – I plan to write a blog post about this and try to determine if it is as annoying as the one complainer has suggested.
    BTW – I also started following more people proactively to see what would happen – I’m still unsure if it’s a good idea, but this new behavior has uncovered a few gems and some great new information sources. However, the amount of slime you must allow in to find the gems is significant. To manage it requires some planning and a fair understanding of advanced Twitter clients that filter.
    I have a hunch that the future topology of Twitter is likely to be a relatively small number of influential content producers with high quality output and massive numbers of followers. Another (even larger) producer segment will be spammers that have massively high follower churn rates.
    — bf

  4. Dave,
    Funny you posted this just now. I started collecting the worst of the worst autoreplies from Twitter recently, and have put out the word.
    I don’t know why they bother me so much. I mean, after I sign up for an email newsletter I expect an autoreply. In fact, to get more followers to our own ezine we use email bait–an article delivered via autoreply–to our new subscribers.
    However, Twitter feels different. I’m following someone b/c I want to have a conversation, not to get a “prize inside.” There’s nothing personal about an autoreply.
    Recently I’ve started unfollowing people b/c their autoreply is so God awful it makes me cringe.
    I don’t know if there’s anything inherently wrong with Twitter autoreplies, I just know I’ve never met one I’ve liked.

  5. My take is that there is a contract that you create when you follow someone, and that contract allows for a single Auto-DM to promote their product/service.
    This contract, however, is not created based on your judgment of what the contract should be. Or any individual’s judgment. Instead it is based on the collective opinion of everyone on Twitter.
    Because we (speaking as the Twitter collective) tend to permit a single DM spam message, that type of behavior has become accepted and prevalent.
    But we would not tolerate (again speaking as the Twitter collective) someone who wrote a script to DM a spam message every day (we would quickly unfollow anyone who attempted), and so that type of behavior is relatively unheard of.
    If we wanted to rewrite the social contract, we’d simply need to convince a large portion of the Twitter collective that we should have zero tolerance for spam, and should immediately unfollow anyone who sends even one unsolicited marketing message.
    So, yes, by following someone you contracted to receive an Auto-DM spam — but because you haven’t been casting a wide Twitter net, you weren’t aware of the terms of the contract that the rest of us have established.

  6. My follow policy is not entirely willy-nilly, but it does have some rules. I always inspect their Twitter page first, if there is only 1-5 posts, I don’t bother following, because the great majority of newbs do not continue posting.
    If they have something in common with me. (live in the same state, profess the same political views, seem somewhat amusing, or professionally have something in common with me I will follow and usually send a casual @ reply letting them know WHY I followed them. This gives them a bit of an idea what they are doing right. (they are funny, smart, chatty, etc…

  7. My feelings on Twitter following vary. I’ve always been interested in meeting new people, so I follow a lot. But not I mostly follow back and occasionally add a new face. But like Rick, who commented above, I HATE auto-replies with a passion. I’d rather you not say something at all that to send me what I consider “spam” that just sits in my DM box, clogging up Twitter. I’ve yet to see something valuable in one -and- they make me feel like a number. I know other people who unfollow anyone with an auto-reply.
    As far as the contract goes, I feel like Twitter gives you a chance to poll a network you wouldn’t normally have every-day contact with. I try to drop a line to every new follower to say hi, if they respond then we’ve started a conversation that could lead to a relationship and to me, that’s what its all about.
    Also, you can find me: http://www.twitter.com/veribatim if you want! 🙂

  8. Dave,
    I’ve also been experimenting and observing behaviour on Twitter since I began taking it seriously. I really like your insight about the disadvantages of using “house rules”. I began in a similar way. I now follow a lot of different people in various industries simply to get fresh perspective and input into my creative work. I can’t tell you how many times a random comment or link to an article in a different industry catalyzes my creativity on one of my own projects.
    I have been cautious, however, and (like Mike McDermott) generally skim someone’s Twitter page and/or URL to see if we have anything in common before following them. I have noticed what appears to be an increase in the number of people who appear to be “selling something” with their Twitter account. I prefer to use Twitter to network with people instead of using it to look for products or services. At minimum I use it to provide myself with exposure to certain people’s ideas and interests.
    The auto-DM’s I get are often impersonal. It’s obvious that the person I followed has not considered who I am in their auto-DM, and that’s annoying to me because I care to find out something about them before following them. Yet, if it appears they are trying to “sell” me something, I will often unfollow them unless there is a compelling reason to continue.
    It seems to me there are almost as many perspectives on the use of Twitter as there are people, but some well-considered guidelines can help people navigate the flood of followers.

  9. Over time, I have also noticed an increasing number of people following me to spam their products. I’ve just started to unfollow them. Like Jase I also scan a user’s page to avoid following a spammy twitter user.
    However, I think that something is going to have to change regarding follow behavior, and how you build out your twitter network as spam becomes more dominant.
    Perhaps there can be a twitter rating system where you can mark a tweet as spam and that rating shows on the spam originator’s profile page.

  10. I find the social rules vary from person to person but each social media tool has it’s own distinct feel and unwritten rules. For example, the overall experience on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are all very different – LinkedIn being a bit more corporate, professional, and guarded, Facebook being more relaxed with a unique blend of personal and professional, and Twitter having a bit of randomness and very informal.
    As with some of the other comments I really dislike auto-responders and will generally not follow someone who uses them. Also, I tend to follow people on Twitter who follow me, but will stop following should I become bombarded with random, excessive “tweets” or if the information is just plain uninteresting to me. As with most things I believe it is up to the individual to establish their own boundaries which will likely evolve over time.

  11. I was reviewing each new follower to see if I wanted to follow them back. It started to take too long, so I turned on auto follow in tweetlater. I also turned off auto DM new followers. I was not sending links but figured that auto DM’s have a bad rap and I am not excited about getting them.
    I only recently started to look for fun, exciting, inspiriting people to follow after a long period of not searching out new peeps to follow because I was having trouble to establish a relationship with the ones I already follow. I am also finding some gems.
    I am only unfollowing peeps that use swear words or politically inappropriate tweets, or tweet sickness updates.
    BTW I do not think you started to follow me yet. @clayfranklin for wholesome tweets and occasional link to something cool.

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