The twitter follower fallacy

Crowd at Lincoln's second inauguration, March ...
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There’s been much a discussion lately about the value of having hordes of twitter followers, sparkled mainly by the Twitter‘s  Suggested Users List. Jason Calacanis came to the point to offer Twitter $250K to be  one of the top 20 Suggested Users for two years.

The argument is simple: the more followers you have,  the more people receive your message,  the more power you have to market you ideas, products, services, or even yourself.

This sounds like good old marketing. Is it, really?

My personal experience of twitter and all the other social media is that the social experience does not scale. You cannot actively follow more than a few dozens of people. You cannot subscribe and read more than a few hundred feeds. You cannot subscribe to hundreds of youtube channels and watch even half of them.

By actively following, I mean, paying attention regularly or even occasionally to the message  ‘broadcasted’. I will not delve into the territory of the entailing  ‘conversations‘  because  it is even less scalable.

It doesn’t take to0 much brains to agree to this observation. Even if you are paid to follow other people’s updates, there is only so much you can take and do.

So why people like Jason glorify a practice that can bring little back?

Because it can bring back more than a little but only if two conditions are met:

  • 50% of twitter users follow only 10 people or so. If you happen to be  one of those they follow, their attention is guaranteed.
  • Not all twitter users are equal. There are people that had a big audience before joining twitter, Calacanis being one of them.  And others that have a bigger audience, who  are not even active twitter users (:think Madonna) . These celebrities  will receive preferential treatment in people’s attention, even if they are crammed among hundreds of others.

Besides, there is little trick that lots of people play,  that adjusts their social experience to their  true capabilities: twitter clients like tweetdeck allow segmenting and  grouping those you follow. If out of the thousands you follow, you are indeed interested in just fifty, you only have to include these fifty in a special group and interact/follow only with them.

In this way, you can follow back without hesitation every single one who follows you, and ignore him for ever after that.

To summarize, a big crowd of followers is valuable if the crowd’s  attention is more or less guaranteed, and this applies only to those of your followers that follow a small number of people or were actively following before twitter.

And here starts the fallacy: actively seeking thousands of followers regardless of their profiles or regardless who you  are does not bring back any profit. It does only pollute the twitter experience with daily twitter spam, driving gradually people away from this medium.

You might argue back that the twitter growth does not concede  with my statement. I can only argue back that a tanker starts turning from the προς  and it takes quite a distance before the turn becomes observable.

Update 24/3/2009: Just saw a somewhat related post here.

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13 thoughts on “The twitter follower fallacy

  1. Someone said that actually not the followers count count. The retweets count count the most ;) because this is the actual measure of influence and the ability of a twitterer to get through with his message. And I agree.

    It is true that the more followers you have, the more likely you’ll get RT, statistically. But it does not correlate one-to-one – there’s a lot of randomness in it, and actually quality content matters.

    I think, with time, people will start to do some sort of selection in who they follow, just like they did with RSS feeds etc. But the celebrities will always be celebrities – because that’s how the world is made, and internet, although free from it in it’s early days, starts to become more and more like real life stuff :) with all it’s pros and cons, un(?)fortunately…

  2. the 50% following 10 or less is flawed: during 2008 twitter user base grew 8-fold, adding ~500K users/mo. It seems logical to me that many have taken some time to add to those following. To correct this the number should be normalized by the total time using twitter or weighted by it or (better) only consider “mature” users, say those using it 6mo+.

  3. Excellent piece. I completely agree with your take on the scalability of social experience and recently wrote a post about fallacies that drive me nuts and there was one I called the “500+ fallacy” referring to the idea that having 500+ friends, contacts or anything of the like strikes me as completely crazy: http://bit.ly/JGMkm

  4. For me, personally, Twitter is party, and I move from swarm to swarm – I wouldn’t give up the stream of discussions (nothing like quantity of tweets to tell you there’s been a bushfire or earthquake) but I can settle into a discussion with a subgroup quite happily.

    Try letting go of control, let the conversation wash over you, and then large numbers make sense. Cheers @SilkCharm

  5. @f055 Retweets count and followers count, provided they get attention. Because both premises (:retweets & followers) are about how much and in which way the message broadcasted. But the equally important and mostly neglected premise is the limitation of attention, especially when the message is only 140 chars long. This is what i was trying to say…

    @mgpolitis You are right in pinpointing that the statistic is dynamic: as long as twitter growth is exponential, the % of users that will follow apporx. 10 others will be high. When the growth declines then the average user will more likely follow more than ten. In short, user attention is inversely proportional to time, which is a grim perspective for twitter.

    @alex Thank you. I read your piece. Completely in the same line. On a side note, I was looking for you in Plugg. I saw you were registered but did not find you. Were you actually there?

    @Laurel Papworth Ahhh! Twitter is NOT a medium of conversations. I have been in this fallacy for a year or so, only to discover that what I thought was a discussion, was, in fact, most of the time, chatting. And, yes, chatting may be fun, but it is an expensive fun, since it is paid with currency of the highest denomination: time.

  6. @Nikos I’m surprised by your comment. Perhaps don’t think in terms of “chatting”, think in terms of “engagement”? After all, a company that only discusses online when it will lead to a sale, isn’t really engaging. I get most of my work from Twitter, including workshops in Asia and the Middle East. Word of mouth – some tweets are retweeted 50 or 80 times – showed me that revealing a sense of humour, willingness to “chat” and ability to quickly switch into helpful, giving expertise mode are just good business practices.
    If that’s too hard, think of the corner shop guy who chats to his clientele. He may not beat the supermarket for convenience and speed, but hey, perhaps not everyone is looking for supermarket-quick, dis-engaged discussion online?

  7. @lapworth Yes, I can agree to ‘engagement’. My objection was to the use of the term ‘conversation’. Not because this is something by definition excluded from twitter, but because twitter is totally unsuitable for a threaded conversation. It is not designed for it. And, of course, I did not mean that conversation equals a sales pitch. Far from it. Now, If you have managed to turn the triviality of the twitter engagement to your profit, this is great. But is it a rule everyone can follow?

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