The Fallacy of Social Media Reciprocation

You are not entitled to attention.

You are not entitled to a follow-back on Twitter simply because you follow someone. You are not entitled to blog subscribers or comments simply because you publish stuff. You are not entitled to clicks to your junk or signups for your newsletter or any thing of the sort.

In fact, you are not entitled to anything.

The web is not a democracy, nor is this an egalitarian society. Giving of attention when it’s such a precious commodity is not something to be done in some empty gesture of validation, and as the attention giver, I and only I will decide how I’ll approach my connections online. My reasons aren’t yours, nor should they be. You don’t decide the value in paying attention to you, I do. This black-white, good-bad, hard-and-fast-rules of engagement stuff is ridiculous at best, and pathetic at worst.

If you honestly need someone to follow you or friend you on a social network to find self worth or acceptance, it’s really time to re-evaluate your priorities.

Moreover, if the precedent we’re setting is that blanket reciprocity should be the standard, aren’t we bound to inundate ourselves with countless connections that have no enduring meaning, purpose, or substance to us other than some initial handshake gesture? That’s a plainly ridiculous way to set etiquette standards for communities that, by their very nature, are adaptable to the needs and methods of many different types of participants.

There is no inherent value in a superficial connection, but only in how that relationship becomes substantive later. That means too, my friends, that the follow you have so self-righteously given and for which you are demanding reciprocation  has no value either until someone recognizes it for themselves.

Some are very stingy with their attention, and for perfectly valid reasons. Some, like me, are more liberal with their connections for equally valid reasons. I am so utterly sick and tired of the whining and complaining of unreturned follows, of self-righteous criticism of those who do the opposite, of the “wrong” people getting attention when there’s *clearly* someone more deserving (ahem), of someone not replying to a comment or a tweet or a Facebook wall post. Enough already.

If you find something interesting, useful, entertaining, or valuable, give it your attention. If you don’t, don’t. If someone makes that choice for themselves and their assessment doesn’t agree with yours, tough. Discuss and learn to understand their reasons if you like, offer them yours and make your case, consider both sides…but get over it already.

Attention, friendship, and all of the bits in between are earned. And they are in the eye of the giver. So as you navigate the social networks and communities on the web, realize that the value exchange does not hinge on some ridiculous idea of reciprocation. Instead, it’s in the interactions and the contributions and the discussions, many of which can happen without explicit gestures of connection whatsoever.

Perhaps instead of griping about others’ refusal to pay you attention you should instead evaluate the insipid nature of your pandering, your disagreeable personality, or your lack of contributions to your communities in the first place.

Because if your motives are sincere and your participation worthwhile, the rest somehow takes care of itself.

  • Colby Gergen

    Thank you for not making this a generational thing. Others who have talked about this try to associate it as a “Gen-Y trait,” which isn’t true at all.

    Besides that little statement, “Hear hear!”

    • Amber Naslund

      I see this behavior in people of all stripes. We can discuss the generalizations and characteristics of Gen Y another time because I think there’s a different discussion in there, but this particular behavior seems not to discriminate. :)

  • Todd Lyden

    Are there REALLY that many griping about the lack of reciprocation? really?

    • Amber Naslund

      Enough to prompt me to pay attention. I used to think that this was one of those social media myths until I just kept seeing tweets like the ones in this post, or statements about taking people off lists because they don’t follow back, or whiny posts about people who aren’t getting the attention they want from the people they want it from, the list goes on. So, in my experience, yes.

      • Todd Lyden

        You mean like THESE:
        Frightening. I guess there is sort of a point to watching the flotsam and jetsam of people who follow and unfollow but I have yet to realize it.

    • Alexandra Reid

      Todd, I’ve seen more posts on “engagement” than I can possibly recount. While I believe that reciprocation is fundamentally important to relationship-building, the conversation must be grounded in something of value, whether that’s emotional, intellectual or even monetary. It seems as though this term has become a buzzword for an interaction of a much shallower level. I’ve had discussions about this “lack of reciprocation” in social media both online and offline, and, like Amber, I can’t say that I agree with a lot of the whining that goes on. It seems to me that social media has become a lot more of a push factor than a pull. People are pushing information out there and reaching out to others simply by clicking “follow,” “connect,” and “friend,” instead of pulling people in by offering content of value. I do think that we need to treat each other with respect in social media, but respect is earned. Respect does not come from merely following someone and it certainly doesn’t come from whining about not being followed back. It comes from giving of yourself the time, energy and sincerity that makes the interactions worthwhile.

      • Todd Lyden

        Great way of thinking about it Ally. I don’t think things like Klout etc are helping either.
        I wrote about this on my blog and I fall in line with thinking that folks need to act more online like they would offline.

  • Ian M Rountree

    That sense of entitlement is the real danger isn’t it? If I create an expectation of reciprocity, that’s my problem (which is what Mitch and yourself alluded to in your snob and anti-snob posts). But if another feels entitled to reciprocation, that’s danger.

    We’re used to commerce – zero-sum transactions, like atomic reactions where one kind of value (things, services) are exchanged for other kinds of value (money, time). This acclimation to transaction – that’s the mold this sense of reciprocity comes from, I think.

  • Melissa

    Thank you, this is excellent and brings up the much larger issue of entitlement, period. I think that we, as a society, are getting weaker by the day because the “you owe me” mentality is thriving. It’s exhausting, and this post is illustrating what’s happening in all aspects of our culture. Great read, thanks again!

  • CoCreatr

    On town square, what do we do if grabbed by the lapels?
    On virtual town square it’s ignore, block, report spam, or verbal aikido.
    Now we can link to an open letter, too.

  • Mitch Joel – Twist Image

    I tell this story often: You go into a bar and offer to buy all of these good looking girls (or boys) drinks. Does everyone accept? Does everyone go home with you? It’s called life. We meet tons of people – some of them interest us and some of them don’t. Some of those we’re interested in we build stronger relationships with… others, not so much.

    It’s getting to the point, where I’ve had people unfollow me on Twitter because I didn’t thank them for a retweet. Is this really where we’re at?

    That’s all I have to say… beyond that, I am standing up and applauding this post. I could not have said it better had I Blogged it myself :)

    • Jonharules

      Couldn’t agree more. I think if we’re really sincere about what we do and give, we don’t have to expect it to be reciprocated because we simply delight at giving.

  • David Overos

    Nice post. Isn’t it funny how the number of followers seems so important? As if the value is in the number, not in the connection or inherent interest? Imagine you are in lead generation and you are building a huge list of completely unqualified leads for your sales team. You can get lots of names from the phone book, but sales isn’t gonna love you for it. When it comes to building your following, I think you should think of yourself as your own marketing team. You want qualified listeners, right?

  • Gabriella O’Rourke

    Ah man – I wish you were close enough to invite for a coffee! Once again you give me even more reason to look forward to the arrival of The Now Revolution! You speak my language… I sincerely appreciate all who follow me, but I choose to follow back those who have interesting comments and links in their stream. And periodically I go back through all my followers and check their streams again to see what they are posting. If I have missed someone interesting, I add them to my follow list. The accounts I choose not to follow – anyone offering “I’ll follow you if you’ll follow me”, or “get 54 squillion followers today – ask me how”. I am also really peeved when people follow only as long as it takes to have me sign up to their feed and then drop their follow. Seems a bit underhand to me and something that a social media strategist from PARC shouldn’t really be doing #justsaying!

  • Anonymous

    Amber, couldn’t agree more. It’s Just like you won’t invite anyone home without a good enough reason. I think it takes maturity, both of age and web culture and usage to internalize that reciprocation is not about merit or entitlement but about relevance and a very dynamic ad-hoc context scale.

  • Karen SchulmanDupuis

    Amen sistah….

  • Doug Braun

    Amen. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Thank you for saying it so well, and in a way that can now be linked to when communicating this to others who “need to be told” … :-)

  • Doug Braun

    Amen. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Thank you for saying it so well, and in a way that can now be linked to when communicating this to others who “need to be told” … :-)

  • Doug Braun

    Amen. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Thank you for saying it so well, and in a way that can now be linked to when communicating this to others who “need to be told” … :-)

  • LoriRTaylor

    This is a fantastic post – I love your voice, tone and passion. My thought is simple “Fans are vanity. sales are sanity. It’s up to you to decide how crazy you can afford to be.” You took that one step further by speaking to the issue of expectations and basically trying to game or force things. People like what they like, who they like, when they want to. Period. There are no one size fits all “rules of engagement” online. Just as we have different styles in an offline meeting, we will have different ways of managing our online networks. Everyone has different methodologies, reasons and resources to support their online brands. Great points here! Nice.

  • Kneale Mann

    Your opinion is your opinion, that’s all. If I choose to adopt it as mine, cool. if I choose to ignore it, also cool. We spend far too much time looking for a pat on the head while others are looking for same from us. So if that equation is correct, then the two sides of the conversation continue to be talking and waiting to talk. You’re right, I’m right, we all scream for attention to be right. Fine, we’re both right.

    I used to say to musicians, just because you have a guitar in your hand doesn’t guarantee you success, airplay or sold-out stadiums full of fans. There are two billion of us with a keyboard and an Internet connection. We all have the potential to make medium and publish content. That doesn’t not guarantee us an audience. That rings especially true if those expecting an audience aren’t willing to sit in the bleachers once in a while.

  • Pingback: L’illusion de la réciprocité des réseaux sociaux | parablog

  • Jeff Pundyk

    totally agree, except i’m not sure that it’s so much entitlement as an expectation set up by the culture of social networking. The sense that if you don’t have thousands of twitter followers, for example, you’re doing it wrong. as in all things, you have to define the goal for yourself and be true to that. Even with my small number of twitter followers, i wonder about why some of them are following since they clearly have no real interest… I think the numbers game has become part of the culture.

  • Charlie Riley

    Great post. I just looked at my list of who follows me back from the gist of this blogpost, and some I’m surprised about some not, but that makes you think: what am I not saying to a person to make them interested past our first initial experience online? Do they not share similar thoughts, or just maybe work in a different segment and choose not to see what I comment about. Or maybe it goes deeper.

    As some of the commenters said already, it’s life. No one is liked by all, and that should make you push harder to think about the communications you send out.

    Building a follower list ins’t about racking up the highest number like a pinball game, it’s connecting with those who really value your words and thoughts. Great post and commentary on expected entitlement. Just like any other avenue in life, if you want something (in this case exposure, appreciation, etc.) keep honing your craft to eventually deserve it.

  • Jay Ehret

    What if we could not see people’s follower counts? What if Twitter and Facebook didn’t keep track of these numbers?

    Let’s face it, follower counts are part of the problem. It’s an ego game. I have more followers, therefore I am important. In some cases that’s true, but with platforms like Twitter, you can game the system. If there were no follower counts, many of the false pretenders and reciprocation hounds would just go home…or to another platform they could game.

  • Heather Mann

    Nice article! I refuse to participate in tit for tat (ha!) on social media. I only accept friend requests from people I actually know (and want to interact with) on FB, and only follow tweeps I think might be interesting on Twitter. Or, for my business twitter, people who interact w/me and have something in common w/my business.

  • briancarter

    On the one hand, in diplomatic language, “forget” them. On the other hand, invective won’t change them. On yet a third hand (OMG! YOU HAVE THREE HANDS!!!), there are more diplomatic posts about this and, as cynical as this sounds, in my experience, most people don’t/can’t change. So… yeah.

    • Amber Naslund

      Then I’m very glad that there’s a diplomatic perspective out there for those who need that while I get a little something out of my system on my blog.

      And if people don’t or can’t change, a lot of us are wasting our time teaching and learning and exploring new things. So as a generalization, irrespective of whether my post is a catalyst for same, I don’t buy that.

      Amber Naslund

  • Norcross

    I’ve often wondered why folks get wound up about this. It’s one thing when a business has a social presence and ignores folks (which tends to end poorly) but as an individual, I choose who I associate with. For me, it’s always come down to the old idea of “you are the company you keep”. Social media doesn’t change that. I’m not interested in “connecting” with anyone and everyone. I don’t have the bandwidth for it, and I’d rather spend my time cultivating good, solid relationships than trying to create as many as possible.

  • Jeremy Tanner

    Had to write one of these up 2 years ago. My story is the same now as it was then.


  • SusanKProulx

    Amber, well-said.

    I’ve learned to spot people quickly who will soon want to burden me with their irrational sense of entitlement. They often use the word “should” and play the victim. They’ve been around since Eve evidently ate that apple.

    They won’t get the point because they don’t want to or need to, and plus you “should” adhere to their presumptuous expectations. They prefer guilting people into serving their needs because they’re passive martyrs; too self-absorbed to concern themselves with giving others what’s necessary to get what they want in return. As Dr. Joyce Brothers once wrote, every relationship boils down to a “give-to-get” transaction, even a marriage.

    I did recently rant at one particular social media user, who is likely an all-around user. If you want something from me, and I choose to give that to you, then don’t cheap out on me and cheat me out of two powerful words: thank you.

    I expect to hear those two mighty words when I’ve helped someone and that’s about all I expect from others.

    The loss of these two words in society today startles and disturbs me. But perhaps people don’t say it more because they felt entitled to whatever generosity I showed them in the first place.

    To those people as well, it’s bye-bye baby, and please do go away mad.

    Has anyone else observed this new and growing rudeness among Americans? Maybe it’s just me. I was raised by Miss Manners very polite sister.

    So thanks Amber for an article I’m sure to keep and to share. Even if the entitled will never get it, I will keep giving them what they really need: the truth.

  • Melanie

    Agreed. And how about this one….. some people just find you boring. (not the author of this post, the person seeking attention) I get so tired of people complaining about the lack of readers or the lack of comments. Write something worth reading and you will engage people.

    • Colin Wu

      Not just boring, but one gets SO tired of seeing the same automated tweets all the time! I start out following someone because what I’ve seen on their profile page seem kinda interesting and I think I may learn something from them. But then, after a while, you realize they’re just automated tweets. Unfollow!

  • Sam

    Entitlement, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have it buried somewhere in their psyche, including me, but it does get challenging to deal with on twitter. And, I so agree, we don’t realize how we participate in creating it by being potentially “robotic” in always reciprocating. Of course, that’s how some choose to manage, and I have been the beneficiary of that exact choice. Particularly in the beginning, there were some key people who followed back (@thebrandbuilder), I had 10 followers, and it encouraged me to stay with the activity…

    We’re really talking about conscious choice…. the idea that our choices have meaning, they send genuine signals and influence where we spend our time. If I’m a blog writer, I want ppl to respond because they were moved to do so. If I’m on twitter, I want ppl to follow me because they want to engage with me. Otherwise, the entire activity reduces itself down to a “fake”, unfulfilling experience – and no, I don’t want that in the least.

    I do engage with others who are demanding, expecting, because I’m also committed to dealing with each and every person who shows up in my space. Believing that each encounter with me is an opportunity to grow, develop & create a new basis for relationship. And like I said, I usually see “me” in others – judgment coming at me feels lousy & I want to participate in relationship rather than block it…

    Thank you… your posts are hard hitting, straight & needed… thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Great post Amber!

    Focus your energy, effort and attention on being and creating value – not follower counts – and you will be part of a community that has value.

    Cheers to you Amber!

  • Anonymous

    You mean, this whole social media experience isn’t about who can get the most friends? This changes everything!!!

  • Anonymous

    You mean, this whole social media experience isn’t about who can get the most friends? This changes everything!!!

  • Anonymous

    You mean, this whole social media experience isn’t about who can get the most friends? This changes everything!!!

  • MaureenMcCabe

    I belong to the largest real estate network and IMHO new members are often promised reciprocity there. I don’t think it has anything to do with generations, there. I believe the promise of reciprocity trains people to continue to color in the lines and do a mediocre job of posting and commenting and expect that those you are reciprocating with you will stop by and say ‘Great post thanks for sharing.” or declare they learned something from the post. Sometimes without reading the post. .

  • Pammy Pam

    oh wow. spot on. thank you!

  • Reener

    I am SO over the reciprocation issue. I used to feel if you read a blog at least leave a smilie face or something, but now I don’t care. Everyone has an opinion, but whether they wish to share it or not, that’s their business. Some people are more social than others, like me and my big mouth! :-)

  • Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    If you wish someone to follow you, then add value to them. I don’t care if that’s humor, an opposing opinion that they find interesting, a business angle, RT’ing everything they say, etc. but it must add value from their perspective.

    A ‘follow’ in and of itself adds nothing and deserves nothing. Following someone *you* find interesting does not make you more interesting. Engagement on the other hand, that is everything.

    If people started worrying more about what they could do for the other person vs. what that person could do for them this would take care of itself no?

    • Cute_jon00100

      Wow, you are absolutely right when you said:

      “Following someone *you* find interesting does not make you more interesting. Engagement on the other hand, that is everything.”

  • Glenn Engler

    well said. Very good perspective. I hate admitting that my Mom was right, but let’s see if we hear some consistency: “do you really want to be known as a whiner?” “be generous, it will pay off”. “Say ‘thank you’, hold open doors, say ‘excuse me’, you’ll get noticed for being considerate”…”make people smile, it’s a lot more rewarding.” And so on. Here we are years later, and the same holds true in the social media space…

  • Kevin

    Awesome post, Amber. Very fresh thinking!

  • Dan Polley

    Great post. Begging for attention is no way to get it. Offering consistently quality content is.

  • mel

    I agree 100%. The basis of give and take has become “if I give, I should, logically, be allowed to take” which is completely inaccurate. If you choose to give, be it a smile, a follow, a tweet, etc., then give it with no thought of reciprocation. This is the difference between those who actually understand “The Gift Economy” as Seth Godin puts it, and those who are simply in it for themselves. Great post.

  • Colin Wu

    I also periodically go through my following list and trim out anyone (individuals, not companies) I find either not as interesting as I originally thought, or I suspect of using automated tools to tweet. I want to learn about someone, not see what they’ve got in a file – though I suppose it is possible to get to know someone indirectly this way too but it’s too much work.

    On a somewhat related note, I don’t know how you folks who follow hundreds, much less thousands, of people ever get anything done! It’s all I can do to tear myself away from my Tweet-display!

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    It’s the same old problem of quality vs quantity of your connections. Having thousands of followers/commenters/friends/whatnot doesn’t mean anything if you don’t actually get anything good out of it.
    “Good” can mean anything, from conversions to meaningful friendships.
    Out of 1000 followers on Twitter, if I can choose 1 or 2 friends I *really* relate to beyond a RT or “Good morning” I can consider all of that worth it.
    Can everyone say the same?

  • Anonymous

    I get tweets about once a week that are asking me why I am not following them back. So, I click through to their profile to find out and notice they have sent that same tweet to 50 or more people. I immediately block them. That type of behavior is not only obnoxious, but just down-right rude. I am very open to following interesting people, but I am also a fan of the block button for obvious spammers. Thanks for saying what we’re all thinking! :)

  • Cole Watts

    Awesome and so true! I personally use the lack of comments/thoughts to shape my content and ask myself questions. Why are they not getting to my blog? Why are they not getting blogs?
    You don’t complain and whine about people not posting…you really need to just ask yourself, would you yourself want to add a comment to this piece of content.

  • Raul Pacheco


    THANK YOU. About 12,000 people have unfollowed me because I have not followed them back. I’m really sorry, but I don’t have the brain power to give everyone a follow back. I hate the sense of self-entitlement, and your post rings SO true.

  • Jean Parks

    Some folks want to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral , an affliction that sadly appears to be even more widespread in virtual life than it is in real time. I favor approaching things with minimal expectations.. then I’m left amazed & grateful for any great connections that happen along the way. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  • Pat Rhoads

    I had this exact experience this morning with someone who’d followed me on Twitter. Their bio actually said they’d follow those that followed them back. I sent them a direct msg to thank them for following, but after reviewing their tweet stream to see if they provided the type of content I wanted to follow, I decided not to follow them. It wasn’t long before I got a nasty message and was informed they were unfollowing me. My reaction? Big deal.

    I follow people who provide content that I want. I do NOT expect them to reciprocate unless I provide content of value to them. Who decides that? They do, of course. And I am not offended when they’re not interested in what I post.

    This feels like a fairly basic post-adolescent view of interpersonal relationships, but somehow many people fail to translate this into the Twittersphere. Too bad, because more people might be inclined to provide better content and more relatability instead of masses of programmed tweets designed to gain ‘traffic’ and ‘more followers’. Ugh.

    Thanks for letting me rant in your blog comments. =)

  • Yukari Peerless

    Wow this is great. THANK you. I do get sick and tired of people whining about “not following back” – how old are we?! If somebody’s follow is so important to you – tweet something interesting. Strive to be great. Simple.

  • Tim Parker

    Well apparently, I disagree with everyone here (though I haven’t read every last comment).

    I don’t get whining complaints. None. Because I follow everyone back. Unless they are clearly hookers or fences, in which case twitter removes the account before I can make their acquaintance anyway.

    Why? Because there is zero cost to me, it’s polite, and following them back doesn’t mean I have to read their posts. I read tweets in several filtered streams in e.g. Tweetdeck or Hootsuite – and every now and again I look at the full stream to see if anyone else says anything worth following.

    So, at the risk of a torrent of objections: If you are impolite enough not to follow people back, you’ll get complaints, and then you can all come together here and complain about the complainants. My suggestion; just follow people back, ignore them if they are boring, and then you’ll have more time to talk about more interesting things. If, of course, this frustrates an objective of raising your ratio of followers to follows – well, if logic were more powerful than vanity there wouldn’t be a cosmetics industry.

    My 2 cents.

    • Amber Naslund

      Hi Tim, that’s not unlike my follow policy, actually (post is linked up
      there in the post). But I disagree about calling that “polite” or
      “impolite”. That’s *your* perception of etiquette, and I’d dare say there
      are plenty of ways to skin this cat. It may be zero cost to you because you
      have a system, as do I, but not everyone wants to work that way, nor should
      they have to based on someone else’s version of what’s “correct”.

      • Tim Parker

        Amber, great point. Polite vs.impolite is a value judgement and not everyone ascribes to my values. Plus, I am sure mine are subject to change – maybe even according to the weather.

        So I should adjust my argument thus; it’s so little effort to follow people back, and it creates sufficient goodwill (or at least, so little ill will) that I just prefer to do that, and then spend my energy on other things instead.

        However, I guess I would just say that if my version of polite is arbitrary (and I agree it is), then others’ version of impolite (i.e. you don’t follow me back) is equally arbitrary, and equally valid. Therefore, if you don’t follow followers back, you are bound to get complaints from some. So there’s no point complaining about a predictable and inevitable outcome of a freely chosen response.

        In any case – love the post. Thank you.

      • Tim Parker

        * Sorry: subscribes, not ascribes…

  • Warren Whitlock

    if you ask for attention, or respect… you are more likely to lose both. To be followed, be worth following. The rest takes care of itself

  • Warren Whitlock

    if you ask for attention, or respect… you are more likely to lose both. To be followed, be worth following. The rest takes care of itself

  • Schnicka

    I agree – but a lot more do unto others and credit where credit is due – wouldn’t go astray. Online society should not be immune to the basic politeness and common decencies of offline society.

    • Amber Naslund

      You’ll never hear me say that politeness and common decency aren’t warranted
      in most every situation. You *will* hear me take issue, however, with
      defining a follow on Twitter as those things. They just don’t equate. Your
      idea of polite might not be mine, and equating a trivial click of a mouse
      with a value judgment and either the presence or absence of “common decency”
      seems shortsighted in either direction.

      I’d also submit that if this is simply a matter of manners, then perhaps the
      presumptive nature of demanding reciprocal attention without reason or
      justification other than some abstract idea of fairness might be rude in
      itself, no?

      • Tim Parker

        I agree. And btw, although I follow everyone back, I don’t expect they’ll follow me, and I don’t complain if they don’t. I just reserve the right to unfollow them next time I have a clean up.