It’s SOCIAL media.

A few days ago I received my fifth or sixth follow notification from a local social media practitioner. In fact, I’ve received over 35 follow notifications from him since last year across the 5 or so Twitter accounts I manage. They’d followed, unfollowed, then re-followed me several times, with it becoming a weekly occurrence over the last month. I called them out on it, saying I thought it was bad practice, and really annoying. They emailed me, defending themselves, saying they were experimenting with a strategy to get more followers. Which is fair enough. We’ve all got to try new things. I just happen to think it’s wrong.

Here’s my response to him. He seems like a nice guy trying to make a name for himself, so this is not a case of criticism or embarrassment. This just seems like a succinct way to publish my “dinner party” theory on the use of social media, and Twitter thing in particular.


My golden rule is that social media is “social”, so you should act as you would in polite society. Imagine yourself at a dinner party, and think “would I do this here”?

For example, I think “vanity retweets”, where you RT a compliment from someone about you, is akin to standing up at a dinner party and loudly proclaiming “Hey everyone! This person just said I have nice hair”. Everyone would think you are a dick, wouldn’t they?

Likewise, in reference to your follow/unfollow/follow strategy, would you go up to someone and say “come and talk to me” every 30 seconds until they told you to get lost, or would you take their non-response as a polite “no thanks”? Would you then keep pestering them? Or wait for them to make their mind up whether they wanted to talk to you?

By all means auto-follow people, but constantly unfollowing them and refollowing them is just hassling them when they’re clearly not interested. I tweeted about this a few weeks ago, directly in reference to you, and several people replied (all of whom are very sophisticated social media users), and we all agreed it was a very strong indicator of a snakeoil salesman, someone who’s shouting loud, but achieving nothing. I’m not saying that you are, but I am saying it doesn’t portray you in a good light.

Also, having a low percentage of @’s in your timeline and apparently mainly tweeting articles and RTs just smacks of using Twitter as an old-fashioned broadcast medium, not a social one. Something that instantly switches me off following someone unless they are actually a broadcaster (i.e. thought-leader, news outlets etc). Even a genuine thought leader in the world of startups and venture capitalism, such as @Bfeld, or @mikebutcher, engages in lots more “social” activity than the primarily broadcast activity that you’re demonstrating.

I’m not an expert, and I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules, but I’ve seen a lot of social media “experts” come and go. 99% of them are self-proclaimed, and don’t last long because they just don’t get it. Real social influence is hard earned, and there are no shortcuts. Of course things change if you’re tweeting as @Microsoft or @BMWautomotive, but I personally just don’t agree with your tactics for gaining more followers as a personal/small business account. It may well get you more followers, but would you prefer to have 10,000 followers who don’t give a shit about what you say (which is what happens when you get junk follow-backs), or 500 people who genuinely hang on your every word?

Of course, you may disagree, and you have every right to. But I just don’t want to have to delete five follow notification emails from Twitter that relate to you every few weeks.

Nothing personal, I hope you understand.


Finally, a paragraph from a follow up email after a bit of discussion. It’s mainly repetition from me, so I’ve clipped out this one bit that makes a fresh point.

“No, 5 emails isn’t a big deal (although I have approx 35 Twitter follow notifications relating to you, dating back to May last year), but that’s not really the point. When I’ve implicitly shown that I don’t want to follow you after your first follow, constantly trying to get my attention again and again is just pestering. Plus, it says to me that you were following ONLY to get me to follow back. If you cared in the slightest about anything I had to say, you wouldn’t have unfollowed me in the first place. So it’s either pestering because you’re continually trying to get me to follow you, or it’s potentially insulting because you considered me someone worth unfollowing.”

I’ll repeat: I’m not a social media expert. I will never proclaim to be. I’ve been lucky enough to teach people in workshops all over Europe about social media, but would never say I’m an expert. And I’m always instantly suspicious of people who say they are. Because social media is in some ways just a reflection of life it’s kind of like saying you’re an “expert in life”. That’s not to say there aren’t experts out there who totally understand it and are talented SM strategisers. I know a few. But they are few and far between. And to be considered an expert in my eyes you really have to demonstrate that you are an expert by openly using it in the best possible way, and not just saying you’re an expert.

29 responses to “It’s SOCIAL media.”

  1. Great post chap,
    “Hey everyone! This person just said I have nice hair” – LOL!

    This behaviour is obviously horseshit, what did the person think they were achieving? This tactic looks like the classic route used to inflate followers: follow accounts stupid enough to auto follow back, unfollow, hey! I’m popular! (but without an interested audience – duh!).

    I don’t always follow people back because I find it hard enough to stay on top of what I follow already. And I go on the basis that “hey, I won’t follow you now but if you engage with me & it’s interesting then that could change”. And I also assume that other people have busy lives and cannot/don’t want to follow me back – no panic – get over yourself.

    Oh, and I’d say this behaviour is against the Twitter rules:



    Is he also ‘experimenting’ with his mobile phone by trying random numbers? (You never know)

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with Joel – great post indeed Neil.

    I’ve experienced the follow-unfollow-follow approach myself and it drives me bonkers, but having it happen with the degree of frequency you’ve experienced is quite absurd.

    We need social etiquette police!

    Whilst we’re having a moan on the subject, LinkedIn connection requests from complete strangers who can’t even be arsed to introduce themselves with a one-liner about why they’d like to connect really gets me wound up. If you’re too lazy to even introduce yourself, then clearly you’re not interested in forming a potentially useful business relationship with me. Which leads me to think, you either just want to ‘up’ the number of connections you have in order to plump up your ego or that you’re using a connection with me to get to my own list of contacts.

    Rant over…once again, great post Neil.


  3. Useful article Neil – something that needs to be said! It’s quite specific to Twitter, isn’t it – useful to look at Joel’s link to their rules. This is an issue that comes up again and again – on Twitter, where there are a couple of things going on…

    – Follower counts on profiles have, for some people, made follower counts a game – the only metric that matters.
    – Asymmetry in relationships means that there is no way for a typical spammer to reach someone who doesn’t want to follow them back – Twitter kind of kills spam, for which I love it πŸ™‚

    Issues like this make me feel we really need to disassemble the phrase ‘social media’ – Twitter is real time micro conversational media, very different from Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, wikis, niche social networks, blogs etc – which all come under the same big label ‘social media’, but they’re all carefully nuanced in their differences and the tech shapes the culture on each platform slightly differently. How you might use each depends very much on the purposes for which you might use it too.

    There are lots of newbies in the social media scene who use the follow-unfollow method of artificially inflating their follower count but as you say – what good is that for?

    I worked with a client on a new blog he was creating on public policy matters – we identified 100 key individuals he wanted to follow his blog and worked really hard on personally inviting and subscribing them (with emails, follow up phone calls etc). The ideas he put forward in his blog found their way into all three major Westminster party’s manifesto’s for the last election. There are still only around 100 subscribers – but they’re very precisely the right people, and the impact of his work is huge.

    The great thing about the social media scene is that it shakes so hard, quality will find its way to the top.

    • Yeah, some really good insights here, Tom. The gaming of follower numbers as a way of gaining respect is akin to people I know who can get 50,000 views on a Youtube video for a small fee. By their own admission, those views don’t mean anything in isolation. Driving people to your content *with intent* is a completely different thing.

      If Twitter could find a way of ensuring people had to think about the person they were following before automatically following back, it might go some way to stopping behaviour like this. These tactics rely on a 20%+ auto-followback rate for it to work.

      DK just made a good point to me, which I think has merit. Many of us were learning the rules of social media (which you’re right, is prob too big an umbrella term now) as it was being established. We were making mistakes before the etiquette was properly formed. The new guys are coming in and making mistakes very publicly, and obviously. Not necessarily an excuse, but I certainly feel like I did things in the early days of Twitter that would probably be frowned upon now.

  4. Great post, Neil. πŸ™‚

    The individual in question actually reached out to me as well, as he saw my tweets when there was the discussion about it (and him) on Twitter. I was assured that auto-follow tools weren’t used. However, I’m sad to say that I’m now slightly doubtful about the truth in that claim – how do you accidentally and manually follow and unfollow 5 profiles 35 times between them?

    For my sins, I’ve actually used an auto-follow tool (a client demanded it)! The on-going follow/unfollow effect can be a result of the following:

    You can often set a time limit to automatically unfollow someone if they haven’t followed you back (e.g. 3 days). People use this to try and increase their follower number without increasing their own following number by too high a ratio. So when you see someone with 5,000 followers who’s also following 5,000 people, this is probably what’s happening.

    Profiles are chosen based on things like their profile bio and/or location details, so someone could use it to follow anyone with the word “startup” in their bio who is also based in “Cardiff,” and it’ll go off and find all those people and follow them. When the list is exhausted, the user has to regenerate it with more profiles. So if you were followed and then unfollowed (because you didn’t follow back) and the user were to put in the same search criteria again (or similar criteria that still matches, e.g. “CEO” and “Cardiff” this time), then I guess that’s what would cause the repeat follows to happen. I’m not sure if the software alerts you to warn you that you’ve already ‘tried’ a person (it’ll obviously eliminate or skip someone you’re already following), so you end up following them a second time.

    Oh well, there you have it… So much for my squeaky-clean imagine! πŸ™‚ Like I say, it wasn’t my choice – but it sure was interesting to use it and learn about it nonetheless.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Steve.

      I don’t fundamentally have a problem with auto-follow tools. If you’re running a campaign for a brand (where the rules change slightly anyway), then I can see where they have a place.

      The follow/unfollow/follow pattern is what I find massively un-natural and an abuse of the etiquette.

  5. Great article Neil, and well said.

    I know companies that don’t bat an eyelid at buying 1,000 followers, with just 10 or so tweets to their name – this makes me less likely to trust them, let alone follow back.

    For me, Twitter is the only true networking site, the amount of new and interesting people you can have an instant conversation with blows everything else out of the water. But the gamification of the service could end up ruining it.

    It proves “Marketers” or those Social Media experts/guru’s/ninjas/pirates/teletubbies focus on completely the wrong metrics. It’s not how many followers/visitors/likes/connections you have but what they do with you – do they reply/buy/comment/recommend? This data is much more valuable, but again this is not the only point of SOCIAL media, I’m not just a number!

    Did they try to explain their actions beyond just ‘experimenting’? 35 emails over a 12 month period is more than just experimenting!

    • Agreed, 100%.

      In their defense, the majority of the emails all happened in the last few weeks (which would back up their claims of it being a temporary experiment).

    • Knowing who follows you, and deciding to whether follow them back (and therefore hopefully establishing some kind of relationship) is at the very heart of Twitter. Otherwise you’re just tweeting into an anonymous abyss, right?

      • We can check in to our lists of followers any time we like. Do we really need to know each and every time when new people follow? I find interacting with those new followers a good indicator of whether or not I should be following them. It’s not anonymous, because I can investigate anyone who replies to my updates.

        Thinking about it, it’s a little akin to djing in a club. Everyone is at your gig to hear what you have to play, but do you necessarily know everyone in the room? Does that matter?

        I’ve been working on a tool to manage my own twitter social circle. There quite a few online, so it’s interesting to learn that people still use these notifications, even if the frequency of them is high.

      • I see what you’re saying. It probably is more efficient to “bulk check” your followers every so often rather than receive every email.

  6. A great article.

    I automatically discount a new Follower who has over 20,000 followers themselves and in turn follows a similar amount of people.

    What’s the point? Do we honestly expect them to be interested in that many people? I also doubt whether any of their followers are also interested, especially when you look at the typical Feed for such a person.

    If people aren’t broadcasting anything of interest, or interacting or responding to content in any meaningful way, the whole Twitter exercise becomes a farce.

    • Yeah, completely agree. Really doesn’t engender any sense of respect for you if you’re just one of 50,000 people that they follow! Just smacks of them following in order to get more follow backs.

  7. Good points Neil. I’m no expert either but for me its not about etiquette, rules or tips. Its the “value” thing. What’s the value of a network of 50,000 if you have no connection with them. As an aside if all you want is ‘followers’ I believe you can buy em – they don’t cost much. I have even heard some people buy followers so they can blag cheaper airline tickets due to their enhanced influencer (ahem..) status. – so I suppose even the bought ones have some value! πŸ™‚

    • Yeah, I don’t think it’s too difficult to get automated services or “bought” followers. But, like you say, they’ll be junk followers, with zero engagement. And just there to make you look good.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  8. Good artcile and interesting thread. @ Tom – like your example of focussing on key 100 and following with traditional media/social-networking tools. @ Nick, thanks for posting this blog on Facebook.

    Like the concept of ‘the dinner party’ best practice for being ‘social’ on social media. Useful analogy.

    Definitely the case, that as social media becomes ever more mainstream, there will be those who use it badly, like with all previous forms of communications (like low quality cold-calls for landlines or spam for emails) – twice as true for business and sales practices.

    And, like at parties and some social engagements, sometimes one just meets dicks – seems unavoidable and just need to recognise them and walk away (though not sure what the offline social equivilant is of following/unfollowing:…stalking?).

    Quality best practice will be the only way to stand out from the ‘white noise’ of anti-social social media business users. But that’s always been true of communications, sales, thought-leaders, etc.

    However, regarding the ‘rule’ on limiting numbers of follower/friends, etc, per se, I think that there are many ways of using social media for many purposes. It’s here that the ‘dinner party’ analogy loses traction regarding its application to social media business practice. There are good reasons for wanting 1k+ followers, though I suppose many of these are professional rather than social in the non-business sense.

    In this regard, it’s interesting (and challenging) to see how work-social is blurring re our social media profiles, as more and more work/professional contacts send us ‘friend requests’ on Facebook and other platforms. Personally, don’t mind anyone connecting with me on Twitter and LinkedIn, just try to keep Facebook profile free of work-contacts…though I feel I’m going to loose that battle this year too.

    • Thanks for the interesting input, Dermot.

      Yeah, there’s very much a caveat to this article – it’s aimed at personal/human users. The dinner party analogy is meant to reflect human behaviour, as opposed to corporate/business behaviour.

      Of course, I think most of it still applies to corporates as well. I don’t have any problem per se with people following, or accumulating, large amounts of people/followers. I just think that if you follow 20,000 people there’s really only one reason to do so – to get lots of followers.

      That’s not a problem on its own, of course. There’s many legitimate reasons to want many followers. But their feed (without filtering or lists) will be completely unusable, so I’ll definitely assume anyone following huge numbers isn’t particularly interested in what I have to say, so shouldn’t really expect me to follow back.

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