I focus mainly on Twitter here, but this is true of most online situations.
Many “thank you” messages (especially “thanks for following” DMs) are automated and hence impersonal, and so a lot of Twitter users view them as spam. Some people unfollow anyone who sends them an impersonal “thank you” via DM.
Saying “thanks” may feel like good etiquette, or a way to open a connection to someone, but it’s tricky. Because there are so many automated “thanks” messages from following software, it’s become generally a poor idea to thank someone for following you. However, many people still feel it’s okay to tweet or DM a “thanks” to people who retweet them (though not everyone agrees).
So the safest, smartest way to thank people is usually to engage with them first. How?
- Retweet something of theirs and add a comment to it;
- Answer a question of theirs;
- Ask them a question.
If this opens up a dialogue, try to work in a thank you comment at some point early on, e.g. “BTW Thanks for retweet.” (If you feel strongly about thanking them, try to include your message in your first tweet, in case they don’t respond.)
But realize that if you’re engaging with someone who is responding, you’ve already made a connection, and thanks may not be necessary any more
Why Thanking Online Is Different Than In Person
In person, a “thank you” is usually part of a conversation between people who know one another, as in “Thanks for coming to the party! What have you been up to?” or “Thanks for calling tech support, how can I help?”
What can happen online is that the thanks can get separated from the conversation. So what you need to do is make sure to have made or are about to make a connection—some kind of engagement—before using a “thank you.” The “thank you” itself should NOT take the place of actual engagement.
This is why thanking for a retweet can be okay: someone read your tweet, and has shared it with their friends. They may have even commented on it, which can be the beginning of a conversation between you. But, as an example of what can be wrong with thanking for retweets, you also see automated retweet bots receiving automated “thank you’s” from other automated retweet bots, where no conversation is possible. This leads to a very, very important principle of social networking:
If you start a conversation, you have to be available to listen
Some businesses will post questions, e.g. “What do you think of the new G4700 product?” And then when people reply, they never respond. Why? Because no one is listening.
So don’t say “Thanks” for anything, if you aren’t reading tweets that people are sending to you.
Don’t thank automated fake accounts
Another reason to be careful saying “thanks” when there is no conversation is that you may be talking to a robot. Generally, if you haven’t taken the time to look at someone’s account at all, you probably shouldn’t be trying to have a conversation with it. If you send a few “thank you’s” throughout the day just to seem more warm and friendly, you should at least try to send them to real people.