To follow or not to follow, that is the essential Twitter question

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
A few days ago I sent out a message on Twitter (I’m @DaveTaylor on the service) commenting that I was just a few people shy of 2000 followers, a big milestone as it has occasionally been the top limit of standard Twitter accounts. Someone I didn’t know responded thusly:

“@DaveTaylor You are probably not following them. Many of us clean out the non-followers now and again”

Well, that was a bit of a surprise, the implication that the best practice use for Twitter is to automatically follow everyone who follows you? I don’t agree, which is clear when you notice that I currently follow 130 people, while I have 2028 followers now. If you’re calculating, that means I only follow 6.4% of the people who follow me.
I responded to Jill (kiwichamp) with a question of my own: “That’s interesting. I follow less than 10% of the people who follow me. Why do you expect reciprocity?”
Jill’s response surprised me:

“cause social media is a two way street — otherwise it is not social”

As you can imagine, the conversation blossomed from there…
Me: To me it’s about stemming the tide of information. I interact with everyone, I follow my friends.
Jill: I would give priority to those who do treat me as a friend — that’s what this latest move towards social mktg is all about
Me: So you wouldn’t do business with me because I don’t follow you on Twitter? (raises eyebrows) Um, okay.
Jill: How can you trust as a friend when there is not much two way communication?
Me: Ah, but isn’t it important to differentiate between “treating you as a friend” and *being friends*? Not geeky, just ethics?
and on and on it went. In fact, Jill has a good point: if your philosophy is to engage with everyone you encounter, to connect to every person you bump into in the digital world, then yes, you should probably follow everyone who follows you. This, of course, is the quantity over quality approach to social media and it’s certainly one way to approach things.
As someone with high visibility in the marketplace and industry, however, I have learned to use the opposite approach, of quality over quantity. In fact, I know every single person I follow on Twitter, and would invite all of them to my home for dinner without thinking twice. They are, truly, friends and I know them all personally outside of the digital world too.
I don’t think that either approach is better or worse than the other, just different.
But, then again, maybe I’m wrong. To find out, I canvassed my Twitter followers and got some very interesting answers, in no particular order (and some are slightly edited for brevity, mea culpa):

@sizzler_chetan:
You don’t follow me as you don’t know me well and so there is no necessity for you to follow me. But am following you because I like to be updated with all your tweets.
Reciprocating the follow in Twitter is not necessary.
And it is not helpful, as you would be following a person who is following you but you are not sure who he/she is. So better follow those who you know and like to follow and let others do their job of following.
@SteveOuting
I think everyone can have a slightly different experience with Twitter, so there’s no one rule that works for all, such as you have to follow everyone who follows you. If you’re a college student and your Twitterverse is strictly friends and family, then you probably will have Follower-Following reciprocity. If you’re a journalist with a lot of readers, it’s impractical to follow everyone who follows you; you’ll probably limit who you follow to your contact network (friends, colleagues, people you’ve interviewed, met at conferences, etc.).
@freelock
I’m relatively new to this twitter thing, but see no reason to follow all of my followers. Do you follow every blogger who reads your feed? Why is Twitter any different? Tweet what you want, follow tweeters you find interesting. It’s so easy to start or stop following, and there are so many different reasons you might want to follow somebody–but nobody should take it personally if they’re not followed back.
@RobertFowler
When I first started, I did and wanted to. Several reasons. One is I don’t like to be rude or disrespectful, offline or online. Also, just because someone is “new” or does not have a website, does NOT mean they are not worthy etc.
That being said, I have found it is not possible to follow everyone, because I can not realistically keep up with all the tweets. I have ADD like everyone else, lol… Now, I look at the person’s profile and website(s) and see if interests me, ie do we have anything in common, do they seem to be into something I have wanted to learn about etc. Obviously, you have to review to make sure it is not a spammer or bot, that is why I do not use the Tweetlater autoresponse function and Manually thank all my followers.
@NextInstinct

You follow people because enough of their tweets really inform or entertain you (and hopefully both), not because they’ll follow you back.
@IreneKoehler
I tend to follow more often than not. I’ve been both pleasantly surprised and sorely disappointed once I’ve had the chance to be a part of others’ ongoing twitter streams. People I’ve never met have turned out to be fabulous resources of information and useful nuggets of advice. I had high expectations of the benefits of following others, but found myself drowning in endless tweets of what they’re eating for dinner, how many frappa-whatevers they’re getting at Starbucks every morning and so on. I really don’t need to know this.
@ClayFranklin
I would say it is not important to follow everyone that follows you. I would say it would be nice if you follow everyone that follows you. Unless tweets are not what you want to see on your feed then I always follow.
@GutzyWoman
My answer is NO. When I get follows from a tweeple that doesn’t bother to put up a picture or avatar, is obviously promoting a business or opportunity, follows 2,000 people but only 10 follow them back and their tweets are nothing but spam, it only wastes my time and pisses me off.
If the person seems legit, I check out their tweets and who else they follow and check out their website or blog to try to determine if we have anything in common. If so, the decision is easy. If I determine them to be borderline, I’ll usually give them the benefit of the doubt. One can always unfollow if necessary.
@bbspress
No — you shouldn’t try to follow everyone who follows you. Your goal should be FOLLOWERS. When you follow someone, their tweets show up in your panel. Follow too many people and you get slammed with tweets. Important ones scroll off too fast. Follow those you WANT to hear from or send and receive direct messages.
@JohnJaworski
I follow people that have something to say that interests me. Follow everyone and you really follow no one. Too much noise!
@Jonathan_Gunson
I always try to reciprocate and follow … unless they’re clearly a badass. Why? Because then folks feel truly part of my ‘tribe’. My own Twitter tribe is very tiny right now, but it will grow. This is an increasingly social environment because the personal connection or referral is ever more appreciated in an ocean of deception.

There is no universal answer, but at least with the people who answered my query I think the strategy is clear: follow poeple who you find interesting or want to know better, don’t just blindly follow everyone who follows you in Twitter.
But then again, you, dear reader, haven’t chimed in yet. What’s your opinion?

17 comments on “To follow or not to follow, that is the essential Twitter question

  1. Good article and explanations on the follow or no-follow question. I agree with @RobertFowler’s philosophy – I follow if I think there are common interests and have something to offer. Someone I would be willing to have over for dinner if I met them in person. I also like your approach, i.e., knowing everyone you follow online and offline.
    Interesting to think about and over time strategies can change and adjust. It’s interesting how social networking is changing the way people meet/connect. And being in Louisiana around several generations has sparked thought on the changes so I’m working on an article discussing the evolution.
    Thanks again — Vanessa (aka iThinkMedia)

  2. I agree with you Dave, I would not want to follow everyone that follows me — too much noise in my opinion.
    In addition, sense you said, “and would invite all of them to my home for dinner without thinking twice.” I think I might even take more people I follow off of my follow list, as I find them interesting but not personal friends. I’m at about 50% currently.
    Social networking is about building trust, you can build trust through social networking, but it shouldn’t be ascribed, it should be earned.
    People that follow you are interested in what you have to say. I believe that is the objective of the follower.
    I follow you — for example — to pick up updates on blogs, like this one. 🙂

  3. Like many others I watch back people who appear interesting – and who don’t post too much. The person has to be very interesting to justify watching 20 tweets from them every day. I’d say I follow back half to 2/3 of those who watch me. Sometimes I do regret it though, when I feel like I’m following a person I simply have _nothing_ in common with.
    Sometimes it is a bit disappointing when you start following someone whom you expect to follow back (because you share similar interests and they follow a lot of people), and then they don’t. But life goes on.

  4. I agree with you. I don’t follow everyone who follows me on twitter either. I’m using twitter to research certain niches. If a person doesn’t fit in that niche, then following them doesn’t really help me that much. Great post.

  5. It’s absolutely about quality and not quantity for me. I get no less than a half dozen spammy types following me every day. Good for them – they get quality. I follow them – what do I get? Spam. No thanks. If I followed 2000 people, the tweeting would be so loud I couldn’t hear myself think! Seriously, I follow people who are tweeting information that I find useful and/or I happen to have made a connection to, often through a forum or another site. If we have common interests, I may follow – but if the tweets are fodder, I unfollow.

  6. While I do follow you Dave, it only happened this week and because of your association with the RMIUG. I follow people I think are interesting, have something worthwhile to contribute, and where I feel and mutual learning can occur and better sharing of ideas for all. I can’t follow everyone and some are not worth following, so I don’t respond in kind; Spammers and other creepsters, no thanks and I’ve had to block a couple really disgusting people. But for people doing things in their communities, Internet-based and otherwise, yeah, I’m down with that. It is a social thing that can help us transcend our little footprint on the world.
    Deb

  7. Just a note, Twitter has never limited the amount of followers an account has, it only limits how many an account can follow. So, 6.4% is fine, 1560% (following 2028 with 130 followers) is not.
    Jeremy

  8. Interesting. I linked here through @steveouting, whom I follow but who does not follow me. And why would he? What do I have to offer? And you see, that is the key question: Not all Tweets are of equal value, sorry to say. For example, “I just made a peanut butter sandwich” is not on par with a link to an excellent blog post like this.
    On the other hand, it’s hard to judge the totality of a particular person’s Twitter contributions on a few posts or a page or two. Some days we make peanut butter sandwiches; other days we are more exciting. And social posts are not only interesting, they are an essential part of what makes social media “social” (agreeing with Jill up above). I really *don’t like it* when *all* the tweets are promotional links for marketing one’s blogs. (Are you human or not?)
    I am not insulted when people choose not to follow me. I am a small eye on a small potato in a small town. Mostly I have nothing pithy to say. But I do occasionally send a @-type reply to somebody I follow who does not follow me. Most of the time they are ignored. I don’t expect a response, but I do appreciate one, and I do feel more respect for people who take the time to respond.

  9. I just started following you today as a result of this blog post and your Tweet about it. Since what you had to say made me feel I could learn stuff from you, I decided to follow you.
    I only follow people I think will offer quality and teach me something.
    My hope is that the people who follow me are looking for the same thing.

  10. Funny how kindergarten behaviour carries on into adult lives in some areas.
    “I don’t care about you if you don’t want to be my friend”
    I would hope social maturity would mean that people will understand that others have value even if they do not choose to follow you back.
    I have no idea who follows me and it is not because I don’t care about them, it is because who I follow is what is important to me. Who I am letting influence me is MY choice, and if they follow me or not, is not a prerequisite for that influence.
    Still everyone is free to use Twitter how they like.
    Just don’t tell me I am doing it wrong, because that really would be going back to the playground.

  11. I follow anyone, so long as they don’t just spam links or text every minute or two. I enjoy learning new things, and the more people I follow on twitter, the more interesting things I learn about.

  12. Great post on twitter following. As a general rule, I only follow
    people I know in person, or by phone, or a close friend has told me to follow.
    Twitter encourages interaction, and has helped
    further bond business relationships with people
    I knew but didn’t know very well
    I agree, that you do not need to follow everyone who follows you.
    I like to mix business and personal comments into my twitter posts,
    and generally follow others who do the same.
    I STOP following people who do way too much random @ replies
    when it should really be DMs
    Now to go twitter about this blog post 😉
    @ChristinaHills

  13. I am now following you Dave after seeing your name on the #BWE speaker page and somehow finding this link. Personally, I subscribe to the “I follow who interests me” theory. I don’t care whether they follow me back or not. I’d like to say that I have something in common with everyone I follow — but I don’t think that’s necessarily true — except that I think by the mere fact we are tweeting — we DO have something in common — we like Twitter! : ) I like that! I have personally met several people I’ve met on Twitter and looking forward to meeting many more!
    Thanks for the discussion!
    Happy following (or not) and Blessings!

  14. There clearly is no universal answer. If you were to follow 2000 people I’d know that you couldn’t pay attention to everyone in your feed any longer.
    Other people use Twitter for different purposes and will be more eager to use it as a “connect to make friends tool”. In their case a focus on reciprocity makes more sense.
    I try to offer reciprocity and laid that down in my Twitter policy which I published in my blog. But of course this wouldn’t be possible if I were to have 2000+ followers. On the other hand I choose to follow people because they are relevant and not because I want to boost my number of followers.
    I think Twitter users also need to look at their motives when they expect reciporocity from everyone they follow. What if you’d only follow the 10 most high profile persons and expect to make it into their club?
    In the grand scheme the number of followers is really just a number. In many ways it is overrated. There are people with 25 followers who can be highly relevant.
    And following a Robert Scoble doesn’t do much for me personally. Everyone else does already. If he makes waves they will eventually hit my desk as well.
    Bottom line:
    Look at your own motives and do what serves you best. And be respectful to others that have a different approach – as long as they are not spammers;-)
    Thanks to Dave for another well rounded article!

  15. First let me tell you that I have been trying for days now to post a comment on this. One word and I’m sure you’ll understand: interruptions. (of the kidlet variety)
    Second, reading this was like getting a warm hug from you because I am on the list of people you follow and I consider it an honor to be followed by and to follow you back.
    Having said that, aren’t you impressed that I’ve been able to retain the fact that this post even exists in my mommybrain all this time?! (4 days is rather impressive for me – who doesn’t know what day it is sometimes without looking to the upper right of my screen.)(I only wish you could have seen the comment I was working on for a post on your AP blog but sadly, kidlet was just too demanding for me to focus long enough to finish it. Will try again sometime.)
    Now, to answer your question with a question: Is there an answer to your question? That is the real question. If you type the word question enough times, after a while, it doesn’t even seem like a word anymore.
    If you follow too many people in twitter it doesn’t really seem like you’re really following anymore either. What does it truly mean to follow someone? Are you hearing what they have to say or are you just listening? I mean that in a technical sense. Your twitter API could be set to listen for pings, but if you’re not around, how can you really hear it? [rhetoric]
    Right now my twirl app listens for 512 twitter users. Astonishingly, there are close to 800 listeners to my feed whether they are actually hearing me or not. They all have something to say, but I only hear a fraction of it at any given time. The time I actually engage into a conversation is an even smaller amount, but, nonetheless, I feel fulfilled with my twitter social experience overall.
    I actually ‘heard’ your post because I was listening at the time and because you’re someone I will actually make an effort to track back, even days later, and see what you’re up to. Out of all of the people I listen for, you’re one of the few I actually hear from time to time.
    I follow people on twitter because I believe they have something of value to offer me � they, for the most part, tell me what I’d like to hear. That value could be technology advice, parenting advice, shared interests, common goals, humor and more. I follow people *back* because it appears, at first impression, they have something to offer to a discussion or share a common interest with me. I block scrapers and spammers right away. I don’t follow back those who I feel are just trying to sell me something, but I see no need to block them because if they want to follow me, I’m fine with that.
    For most people, the reason they chose to follow me is obvious since I’m kind of a niche type of person. When the reasons are not as obvious � MANY times I really wonder why someone would want to follow me. That’s not for me to judge, but I might not follow back if I don’t feel the person has said anything to contribute to my interests. Sometimes, I don’t follow back and then that later that person sends me @at comments and it gets my attention and I learn that the person genuinely wants to be friendly and I follow back. Some people are asking for reciprocity and for the most part, I’ll honor their request since they’ve taken the time to ask for it in a friendly manner.
    Everyone carves out their own policies when it comes to how they choose to socialize. It’s a great liberation compared to working at a corporation in a cubicle where socialization is dictated by administration. It’s good to be King and it’s even better to be Admin.
    Some of these policies are based on cultural expectations and some are based on personal disciplines. I try to strike a happy medium between the two as my personal policy goes. It also depends on the tool. I ascribe to your twitter follow policy guidelines more closely when it comes to Facebook because, for me, (and with the exception of a few) that’s where people I truly know for years hang out because it’s become mainstream enough.
    As for the exceptions, sometimes I believe that an established digital relationship matures in dog years as compared to analog relationships with certain people. Some peoples’ personalities are just more conducive to a quickly maturing relationship online where others’ can only exist on a limited basis offline. There are people I ‘know’ online that I feel closer to or know more about than some people I’ve ‘known’ offline since high school. There are some people I went to high school with that I now know better because we’ve reconnected online. Instead of catching up in the locker room or in between classes, we now catch up in emails, forums and blogs. Sure nothing can replace an in person meeting, but once you’ve subscribed to their life, you don’t feel as removed during the time in between meeting offline.
    Twitter is networking for me too. I follow more people back because I believe in casting a wider net. If I only followed a fraction of the people I do follow, I might not get my needs for socialization met. I might not get my twitter community questions answered as quickly.
    I don’t mind the noise so much when it comes to twitter and FriendFeed because I can self-filter when I need to. Since I’m a busy parent and work part time, I only have time to dip my toe into the social waters and spash for a bit till my toes get pruny. Then it’s time to get out of the pool and go back to life in the anolog sense (as you so eloquently put it a while back).
    Not only did I hear it, I also retained it too. *That’s* following.

  16. ah, sisterhood. AFter the previous comment I have a crush on macmommy, you’re like my twin sister.
    That said, I follow randomly. On the one hand, my friends I’d invite to dinner like you do, and on the other, I find some peoples profiles interesting enough to warrant following them even if they are a complete stranger,
    Good post btw.

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