Why I Followed You Back On Twitter

Oh hey, guy, so I followed you back on Twitter.

Was recently catching GamerDNA’s finest Dave Fisher on his latest blog post “Why I Didn’t Follow You Back On Twitter.” It’s an exhaustive personal list of the many reasons why Dave chooses to not follow back, and I think I’m pretty safe in saying that it’s representative of Twitter users in general.

Painfully obvious point: although it’s only about two years old, Twitter has already evolved a sophisticated system of community norms and values. Like the unspoken rule of never tagging more pictures of yourself than other people tag of you on Facebook, it’s almost blithely uninformative to observe at this point that there’s all sorts of self-conscious norms that people apply to the all important ratio of followers to following (disclosure: @timhwang is currently running at the unacceptable rate of 1.46:1 — more below)

And, with Qwitter, Twitter Grader, and the whole host of meta-apps for Twitter you can set up now, you can really step up your personal pruning of the Twitter tree. People trim the people they are following back for everything: interestingness, looks, how clever people are, how popular they are, and etc. People have even started to do public annouces of Twitter unfollows, as a warning to the other followers who don’t want to have to deal with the IRL awkwardness of the situation. Best of all, you can even use Qwitter to retaliate against internet friends. Unfollow me will you? Well, TAKE THAT.

These practices lead to a broader question at work here: I know that ostensibly the idea of Twitter is for keeping up with friends. Twitter is supposed to look like this.

So why does Twitter so often resolve to something scary like this?

This is all very middle school. But, really, if you think about it these social problems emerge in how we’re thinking about the technology, as opposed to problems inherent in the technology itself.

I think it’s a language problem: partially because the concept of “follow” is so weighed down with meaning. We assume that it’s some appraisal of personal worth or value, i.e. “I’m a follower of Patrick Stewart.” But it isn’t, at its most basic level. To follow is really just to check someone out, to receive new information from a new place. It’s no different than choosing to walk by and look at something every day on the way to work. You don’t have to like or care or respect what you’re looking at. It’s just looking.

Generally, my policy is to follow back on every rando that swings by. All the time. No matter who you are. I hit up the autofill when I first joined Twitter and followed everyone. The only limitation is a policy of not following back spammers, because they only tweet about the same thing all the time. And hell, lord knows I even strongly considered following DogPlatesUSA because any commemerative dog themed decorative plate company hocking their wares via Twitter is radder than you or I will ever be.

Why? It’s because Twitter doesn’t have to be about guaranteeing a narrow dependable stream of friends and comments from People More Important Than You. There’s an equally valuable strategy to maximize conicindence, the odds that you’ll hear something you didn’t know about, casual undirected browsing, and the general joy of sitting around watching the world go by. By severely lowering the bar for following someone back, you increase the likelihood that you’ll just happen to run into something suprising or remarkable or in the very least amusing. They don’t need to follow you back, because you’re mostly just interested in seeing more of the world. Their loss if they don’t look back.

What I’m trying to say is that most people are always desperately trying to maximize signal-to-noise, which leads to all that neurotic follower/following back and forth. But really, what if we thought about the noise as signal instead?

The obvious response is: so why don’t you just view the entire Twitter universe in that case? A policy of always following back on follows tend to bring people into your Twitter stream that are tangentially related to you. Whether they were at the same party, a friend of a friend, or someone you met and then forgot about, growing a following pool organically like this tends to allow you to peer, not at the whole universe, but the universe of social connections just beyond your everyday perception. And this is badass. These streams tend to be about the same things, places, worlds you experience — which, beyond being more relevant to you, is also more likely to reveal new things about things you are interested in. The “whole universe” view doesn’t provide the same customized functionality.

This is a movement. I call it, Positive Twitter, which is based around gaining value from Twitter via being open, actively exploring and seeing more things. As opposed to Negative Twitter, which is mostly about creating value in Twitter through avoiding new connections, evaluating others, and restricting attention.

Won’t you join me, my fellow Americans?

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