But quietly and without fanfare this weekend, I unfollowed all 34K people I was following (using SocialOomph if you’re interested) so that I could reset and start over.
I was actually hoping I wouldn’t have to write this post, and for most of you, you probably a) didn’t notice, b) didn’t care much if you did notice and c) have probably thought about doing something similar once or twice yourself.
But I’m getting just enough blowback and misunderstanding that I want to explain a few things about how Twitter works, why I bothered with this, and why it doesn’t really make much difference at all in the grand scheme of things.
(If you’re one of the ones who doesn’t much care, skip this. I mean, it’s a post about Twitter. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff here.)
Lists Are The Solution
You don’t have to follow someone to see their posts. Most people don’t realize this. You can put them on a list and see their posts just like always, and the lists help keep them at least contextual or topical.
I have *many* private lists I’ve created for my own use, from professional contacts to clients to interesting industry discussions and hashtags, along with personal interests like mental health and animal rescue.
THAT is how I see lots of people and conversations, discover new people, and shift my focus around as my needs change. I can turn the lists on and off, add new ones, and still pay attention to a diverse array of people and conversations all across Twitter. It’s like a volume knob that I can turn up or down.
So why not just follow those people that I have on the lists?
Following = DM Access
The only reason to follow someone on Twitter is if you specifically need or want to communicate with them via Direct Message.
The people that DM me are mostly my closest circle of personal and professional acquaintances and then, on the other end of the spectrum, lots and lots and lots of people who fall for phishing scams or are pitching me their latest ebook.
We can talk to each other via @ reply until the cows come home and (gasp) we don’t even have to follow each other. So it doesn’t stifle public conversation in the least, which is where most of the Twitter action happens, at least for me. Want to connect with me? Start a conversation anytime. If you’re conversational and we share mutual interests, I’ll probably find you somewhere myself, even.
I don’t feel like I’m obligated to provide DM access to others as part of my Twitter experience, and I don’t believe it’s a “courtesy” to just follow someone back. Especially if you’re talking about someone who follows a lot of people, getting followed back means absolutely nothing. They’re likely not keeping track of you in their main timeline anyway and instead using a few well-curated lists to effectively whittle their follow list down to a manageable number while avoiding pissing people off by unfollowing them (more on that in a minute).
If someone I’m not following needs to reach me privately, they simply send me a quick “hey would you mind following so I can send you a DM?” note or ask for my email, and I’m happy to oblige. 99% of the world has zero problem with this.
Then There Are the Butthurts…
I’m fascinated by the odd social dynamic of reciprocation on the web, and how sharply it’s tied to some people’s sense of self-worth.
If you care about your Klout score, it might matter to you that someone with a lot of followers is following you back. Then again, if you care about your Klout score, we probably have some pretty fundamental philosophical differences anyway and won’t miss each other much.
I had one gentleman tweet publicly that I had unfollowed him, then he promptly blocked me. Cool by me, but that’s quite a visceral reaction to such a tiny thing.
Let me explain this very clearly: a Twitter follow is not a validation of your worth as a human, nor is it a stamp of approval from someone online that you’re awesome or not. If you even slightly see it that way, you might need reset some priorities.
Twitter is simply a tool, a mechanism. Everyone uses it differently, and heavy users like me need to rejig the system once in a while so it continues to work and stay manageable. In short, the system of follows and lists and DM access and what is useful to me to pay attention to is not about you. In this case, it’s about me and what makes Twitter valuable for me personally.
You get to say the same thing about your experience, and you get to shape it according to your own needs. Hell, unfollow me and put me on a list (or don’t) if you want. Your Twitter is yours to shape, and you don’t owe me anything either. I’d wager that a good portion of the people I’m most interested in at a professional level don’t follow me back. And who cares?
If it helps, here’s a glance at how I’ve set up Twitter to work for me (and you can probably see why this wouldn’t work if I was still following 34K people).
Timeline: These are the people I actually follow. They’re people I correspond with in Direct Message and mostly my main circles of personal and professional contacts. I’m still rebuilding this, obviously. It’ll stay small.
Current: A private list I’ve created that allows me to follow interesting people more closely that aren’t directly related to any of my professional or personal interests. Perhaps it’s someone I had an interesting conversation with, or that I found in a chat, or that a friend retweeted. This is one of my discovery mechanisms and how I ensure that I always have the chance to meet someone new. I rotate people on and off this list all the time.
Professional Lists: I have lists of social business professionals and practitioners, agency leaders, smart people, and hashtags like #socbiz or other searches that are pertinent to my work. This is how I keep tabs on what’s happening in social business on Twitter and find great resources and articles and such.
Personal Lists: I follow animal rescue groups, mental health organizations, book groups, etc. It changes often and I build and dismantle searches regularly. I have several lists separated out that I can turn off or on as I see fit.
In all but the first list, I don’t have to be following those people to see them.
A Closing Word about “Followers”
Twitter is full of fake accounts, spam accounts, idle and dead accounts, and various forms of flotsam and jetsam. The real, human-powered accounts that have any vested interest in anything other than blasting out their latest blog post are few and far between.
That means that the 53+K accounts that are following me look a lot more impressive on paper than they probably are in actuality. It’s not a measure of my influence, it’s a measure of how many times someone clicked the “follow” button. My potential reach is a section of that, and my actual reach is some subsection of that. My true influence – my ability to make those people take an action other than simply a retweet of a clever quip – is much smaller than that, and has to do with a lot more factors than my Twitter activity.
See where I’m going with this?
You have to take this stuff with a grain of salt.
Twitter is great, and it’s probably my favorite social network. I’ve met a number of wonderful people that way (including my co-author Jay and my business partner Matt), and I’m sure I’ll meet even more.
But if you’re freaking out about follow reciprocation and all that jazz, I’d like to suggest you step back and think about why this really matters so much to you, and what significance you’re hanging on electronic connections that take only a click of the finger to make or undo.
Everything changes. Twitter will too. And I promise that someday you’ll wonder why anyone cared so much about who followed whom.