Dorothy Crenshaw July 2, 2009 | 09:57:11

Why Twitter’s Fuzzy Follower Math Doesn’t “Follow”

Since the rise of Facebook and LinkedIn, online connections have become a visible form of social currency. But, given its one-way follow model, where anybody can basically follow anyone else, Twitter has taken the numbers race to another level. In fact, Facebook may be about to change its follow set-up to be more like Twitter.  Mashable points out that an option button has appeared that allows us to be notified when another Facebook user “connects to me as a fan.” Hmmm.

Yet since the hype around Twitter has gone mainstream, consistent usage has lagged.  Despite that, follower count has become a barometer of status. And, there’s been a lot written about the proper “ratio” of friends to followers. If you have too many followers relative to those you follow, you can look snobby. But, if you’re following more people than you have followers, maybe you’re not very influential.

Do you follow?  Me, neither, because it’s mostly nonsense. Mark W. Schaefer has an entertaining take on the “real” math behind the Twitter follower counts. He dissected the follower list of an unnamed blogger and social media consultant who bragged of his influence over his 80,000 followers. When Mark examined the consultant’s follower list, he estimated half weren’t real – they’re bots, porn stars, spammers, etc. Then, after an extrapolation based on the “Twitter Quitter” research from Nielsen, the Harvard study stats about Twitter usage and presumed demographics for qualified followers, the “real” following of the Twitter king dwindled from 80,000 to…well, one.

Exaggerated, yes, but the point is valid.  Followers aren’t a viable metric of anything unless they’ve been qualified, which requires a continuous, daily time commitment.  Another metric – the number of updates on someone’s account – might tell you something about their history, but it’s very fungible, and early adoption doesn’t guarantee influence.

I admit to engaging in a half-serious “race” with a former colleague, where we challenged each other with mock insults and poached one another’s followers to reach different benchmarks (note: I got creamed.) But, we’ve both settled into a more serious and curated approach to building a following.

I’ve made this point before about the “echo chamber” nature of Twitter but didn’t address the absurdity of the fuzzy follower math. Followers as a badge of status – or, more importantly, social media reach – is great if you’re Ashton Kutcher, and, a quantity-over-quality follower strategy is probably worth it if you’re broadcasting price deals or news updates. But, it honestly makes no sense if you believe, as I do, that Twitter should be about real engagement.


4 thoughts on “Why Twitter’s Fuzzy Follower Math Doesn’t “Follow”

  1. Hi Dorothy,
    I too liked your article about Twitter. But Twitter–in my opinion at least–is less about the follower/who’s following you metrics. Unless, of course–and you mentioned this–if you were Ashton Kutcher, or some celebrity who needed tennie-boppers following their every thought to feel relevant. (And even that can be put to good use if implemented properly).
    In my opinion, one’s twitt-ability becomes relevant when she/he can actually make a topic important enough to become a serious ‘trending topic’, OR, when one can turn Twitter into their own personal 140 character Associated Press.
    Twitter is almost like an online barometer for special topics/subject matter. For example, if you were say, a television manufacturer who wanted to know what the general public thought about LED televisions, you could enter “LED TV” in the Twitter search box and see the overall “Twitter” perspective. It’s kind of like being in the Matrix–or conducting a survey without being invoiced. Said television manufacturer could then use said sentiment about LED televisions on Twitter to sway opinion about their own LED television product virally, using Twitter alone…
    Said manufacturer, if they had an online page about the virtues of their LED televisions could link useful info. pages back to their Twitter posts! The word will get out!
    As those posts continue to grow, you’d be surprised how many people start following… before long, people will start following you, for valid reasons! I believe when people focus on the one-dimensional aspect of being ‘followed’ or who they’re following on Twitter, they diminish its usefulness. Twitter isn’t popular because it’s the next social media gimmick. It’s how you utilize it and incorporate it into a PR program.
    By the way, I love the fact you have a running blog and update it frequently!

    1. Thanks, Mario. Great to hear from you, and I appreciate your following the blog. Yes, you’re right about the search capability. In fact, that’s what first attracted me to Twitter. I was able to spot and blog about some early “crisis” topics (e.g. #amazonfail) and other emerging issues before they broke in the mainstream media b/c of Twitter. And, there are some good search tools. I guess I wish it weren’t so junked up much of the time by spam-like giveaways or people trying to game the system. Yet, it’s interesting; after being off Twitter for several days while traveling, I missed the immediacy and the connectedness! I just think it’s overhyped…but that, I guess, is simply what happens. I think there’ll be a backlash and it will find its “real” user base.

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