Trouble with Twitter


Let me first state that I get social networking. Business is about connecting with people and communicating your value proposition. It’s about real engagement with your customers and both learning and prospering from that engagement.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn have great models; connecting friends and in the case of LinkedIn connecting professionals, potential employees and employers. Both of which provide a better tomorrow.

I also don’t subscribe to a rigid demarcation that Facebook is just for B2C and LinkedIn for B2B. The reality is that people on Facebook have professional lives and LinkedIn professionals also have friends.  Businesses should consider both opportunities for engagement.

But whilst I immediately get Facebook and LinkedIn, I have issues with Twitter. I know this may sound like heresy given its popularity, but I think there is a growing problem with how it is used.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn have reciprocity built into connections. If I connect with you, you are automatically connected to me. With Facebook the connection is based on personal relationships, with LinkedIn it is based on professional relationships.

Twitter is different; it is based on following someone or some organisation (unidirectional). Now Facebook and LinkedIn also allow you to follow a company (unidirectional) or group (in the case of LinkedIN limited to 50 groups to prevent spam) but are otherwise bi-directional.

The problem with Twitter is the lack of rules means it is open to abuse. There are no limits to how many people you can follow and whilst the custom of reciprocal following is debated, the general behaviour seems support this activity which results in distortion of purpose.

Firstly let me define a follower as someone who is interested in what you have to say, I think that’s a fair description and I generally follow that definition and only follow those people I think have something valuable to say. I also think that following 50 to 150 people (depending on their tweet frequency) is about as much as I can reasonably consume. I therefore don’t follow the reciprocity custom that seems common on twitter.

However, this reciprocity custom has enabled individuals and organisations to exploit this as way of building a following. I have tracked such attempts through  and if they are not followed back within 1-7 days they unfollow you, e.g. the motive was never to follow but to be followed. Some actually follow and then unfollow even if you do follow back.  It’s a kind of twitter spam from people you would otherwise respect.

This kind of behaviour is obvious when you look at their twitter statistics. One example had 89,000 followers but followed over 87,000. The obvious fact is that if you are following 87,000 people you are following no-one, you are simply broadcasting.

It is also self-deceiving; whilst you might think you have a following of 89,000 the reality is that you have to subtract the 87,000 that were actually following you back out of courtesy. So the real number of followers is probably closer to 2,000. defines this group (unidirectional followers) as fans but this new category is simply a way of dealing with the abuse of the original idea of following.  To test this out I looked at one particular example where an individual was following 96,000 and being followed by 99,000 (e.g. 3,000 fans). I checked out their Facebook page where they only had 200 equivalent fans. If those 99,000 followers were genuinely interested then I would have expected a much higher Facebook following.

The problem is that twitter seems to have become a universal broadcast phenomenon; an ecosystem with more exhibitionists than voyeurs.  I once heard a marketer state “who wants to hear about me walking the dog this morning – over several thousand twitter followers”.  Well that’s pretty delusional. Maybe if you are President Obama that might be the case, but in business I rather doubt that is the case. In the new terminology of twitter that’s mistaking fans for followers.

My point is that if twitter becomes a place where people follow people just so they can be followed, and people follow people simply because they are being followed, then people are going to be following a lot of people without actually consuming any content.

That’s bad for Twitter and getting revenue from sponsored tweets and it’s bad for businesses that are trying to build a genuine following and paying twitter for advertising.  I suspect that Twitter will at some point have to address this by limiting the number of   individuals and organisations that you can follow to a realistic maximum of say 500.

I am looking forward to that tweet…

p.s. if you want to fan me on twitter I’m @nickwhiteley

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