The Twitter following controversy

I’ve learned that the more transparent I am, the faster I learn, and learning is really important to me.

I keep getting comments from the anonymous Twitter user “Alan” complaining about how he/she thinks @TweetSmarter follows and unfollows people on Twitter. You can see those comments on many of the blog posts that are just before this one, such as “following secrets I’ve never told anyone before,” and “how you don’t have to follow lots of people to get followers.” Here’s my latest response:

Dear Alan,

Thanks for your concern for my reputation (you said “I think you’re providing a nice service for lots of folks. Don’t erode your brand with this nonsense.”) I appreciate your recognition that I’m here to help, and that you’re trying to advise me on how to protect my reputation with the “veterans of Twitter.” I’m sure that, like yourself, people will make up their own minds, and that’s fine by me.

Here’s the short summary: I’m trying to be ever more selective of who I follow while I get rid of people I don’t want to follow, of which I’ve accumulated too many. So less following and more unfollowing is happening. But you just see large numbers in following and even more so in unfollowing and therefore I must be doing the same junk everyone else does. Or you just think that doing lots of following and unfollowing can only be bad, no matter how it is done. I wish it were just semantics, and we were simply using different words for the same thing.

I’ve pointed out that I really can’t recommend following large numbers of people on Twitter, because it’s so ridiculously time consuming to do well, and people who try it do it poorly, and most are doing it for the wrong reasons. I do it much more poorly than I wish I did and I’m constantly trying to improve. I’ve already explained a lot of the things that can go wrong in trying to get followers, that’s it’s the wrong thing to try to do in the first place, and pointing out how even getting more retweets can be a bad thing when it’s just junk accounts retweeting you.

I claim that I use following as a carefully thought out tool, spending lots of time finding the “people who help us help others” that you call part of a “laughable” and “intellectually bankrupt justification” on my part. Gosh, don’t sugar coat it, tell me what you really think, lol! Again, it seems to be the numbers that bother you. You’re sure they’re too large to be well thought out on my part. You’re sure I’m just doing what everyone else is doing and I should just admit it and stop doing it.

I claim that I’m building a community in part by using lots of analytical tools to follow quality people a fairly high rate/high volume. You claim it’s just what you call “pump and dump” following and unfollowing.

You’ve positioned yourself as an expert, saying your expertise allows you to “see through” my “rambling justifications.” So let’s test that expertise a little bit, in an admittedly completely unscientific way (rambling justification alert!)

I’m going to give brief overviews of three unscientific examples of the power of the community that has formed around @TweetSmarter. They won’t “prove” anything, but maybe you’ll get a glimmer.

Basically, I could NOT do what you describe and have had the extraordinary community that has formed around @TweetSmarter form as it has. The test is this: You have no way of explaining how these things could happen. If I’m doing what everyone else is doing, how can the @TweetSmarter account have such an extraordinary community?

Let me anticipate your most likely explanations: that since I spend a lot of time on Twitter helping people, and have a lot of followers, that explains why there is such a devoted community that has built up around @TweetSmarter. True to a point of course. Yet, there are around 1400 accounts with more followers than we have, and more all the time. @TweetSmarter is not growing, it’s shrinking, at least when compared to the overall Twitter community. Also, there are hundreds of people, authors, bloggers, CEOs who are tremendously active on Twitter, famous outside of it, and have fanatically devoted and very large communities. And yet, measures of the community that has built around @TweetSmarter have ranked it among the highest in the world for years. @TweetSmarter is not just influential, it’s more influential than any remotely similar account in the world. It’s sometimes the most influential.

You don’t believe my explanations of why and how I follow. Perhaps a couple of examples might make you wonder if there really is something more to it:

Influence analytics

On Twitalyzer our account was measured as one of the 5-10 most influential in the world for most of 2009. We reached the #1 spot repeatedly, usually trading place with @GuyKawasaki for it. When Edelman’s Tweetlevel came out, we debuted at #3 in the world. And even as Twitter grows, we spent nearly all of January 2011 on Edelman’s list of “top 20″ most influential in the world, peaking at #5 on January 21st.

Maybe you’ll notice that these things don’t really have that much to do with number of followers. There are 1,393 accounts on Twitter that have more followers than @TweetSmarter does as of this writing. Hundreds of them are very active, with great communities around them. And yes, hundreds more are simply celebrities who don’t really use Twitter very well. But many of the other accounts on the top 20 during the times we appear on the list have millions of followers. Our follower numbers are nearly inconsequential. It’s the number of “people who help us help others” in our community that matters. Take for example a list of users from a quick search I did, their number of followers and their Klout score. All except @Scobleizer have a LOT more followers, yet NONE of have a higher Klout score than TweetSmarter the day I checked. Note that the founder of Klout says it doesn’t care how many followers you have. Numbers are expressed as network/overall online influence. Network mean “how often engaged by influential people,” meaning not even @LadyGaga with 8.4 million followers is engaged by influential users more frequently than @TweetSmarter is. :

  • 93/86 @TweetSmarter  0.24
  • 91/87 @Mashable  2.2 Million
  • 86/86 @Twitter 4.3 Million
  • 89/85 @CNN 1.6 million
  • 89/86 @ConanObrien 2.4 Million
  • 87/82 @GuyKawasaki 0.31
  • 88/86 @Aplusk 6.3 Million
  • 88/81 @Scobleizer 0.17
  • 78/73 @Biz 1.7 Million
  • 93/92 @LadyGaga 8.4 million

The 2009 Shorty Awards

The first year of the Shorty Awards, I thought I might try to win to see how positive an effect that would have on building our community. (I’ve tried all kinds of things and this was another.)

I competed in a category that had fewer competitors, and simply tried to keep the number of votes for us near the highest, without trying to look like a clear winner until near the end. I had no idea of how many votes it would take to win, or if we stood a chance at winning…but we did win. The real revelation came afterwards.

A scandal

After we won, I read some information from a more competitive category than ours. Apparently there had been a scandal.

Dan Zarella, an extraordinarily successful and well-respected expert and social media researcher, said that no matter what he did, he could never seem to get more votes than this other guy (who I won’t name—all info is still on the web if you care to research). Dan made it clear he was going all out and still falling short. So he did some digging, and discovered the other guy was buying votes!

So here you had a social media expert going all out to win in a competitive category, trying to stay ahead of someone who was just buying votes. Dan won (the other guy was disqualified), and you would expect that he had a TON more votes than we did, right?

Actually…no. In fact, our account had more votes than most of the winners in any of the categories. But the real revelation was this—@TweetSmarter could have gotten probably four or five times as many votes, easily—I was only trying to keep it close in our category! I had no idea our community was so much stronger than those around others. It really opened my eyes.

Let me just add one little addendum: I haven’t competed in the Shorty Awards since then. Why? While it demonstrated to me the strength of our community, it was clear it had very little to do with building or nurturing community. And yes, I mean in part it doesn’t bring in many followers. But of course I mean it doesn’t bring in GOOD followers, while you’re probably still just thinking about the numbers. If popularity mattered, we’d still be competing—and winning. (Never say never, the value of the Shorty Awards could change in future years. And then I’d compete again.)

How did I do it? I simply asked a small percentage of the people who engaged with us to vote for us—the same thing everyone else was doing. I could have asked tons more. No rocket science. We just had a stronger community.

Why I’m responding

I’ve learned that the more transparent I am, the faster I learn, and learning is really important to me.

But also, what I’m doing is I think is at least a little controversial, because I’ve basically tried a little of everything over the years, and I’m trying to be as fair and smart as I can with what I’m doing now. The more I try to do things on a larger scale the more I have to use tools—the most important of which are analysis tools—but which means automation of some things, some of the time. I think you basically applaud my reason for being here but  misunderstand some of how I do it and feel that some of it shouldn’t be done. Clearly you think searching for good people is fine, but we disagree beyond that.

Can you admit that maybe, just maybe, I work as hard at find good people to follow as I say I do? And that it has made a difference to growing a community that is both large and high-quality?

And that’s what really bothers you, isn’t it? It’s the numbers. I must be “bad” for doing lots of following/unfollowing, why won’t I just admit it? I must be “bad” for using following to find good people. I must be “bad” for unfollowing my mistakes—and having made so many of them.

Despite demonstrating that I could achieve what you seem to think I’m doing by other, more automated and secretive methods, you’re not convinced. You see big numbers, I must be doing bad things. I’ve pointed out a lot of the better options I could be using if I was just trying to do what you’re accusing me of doing, to no avail.

I’ve watched people try every trick in the book on Twitter for building their communities. There are a ton of people with 40,000-300,000 followers who have done “pump and dump” from day one and still do it today. There are a significant number with more followers than @TweetSmarter has. We both know this. You’re saying I’m doing the same things they are, and I’m saying I’m doing something different at a similar volume.

But there is definitely something addictive about connecting with lots of great people around the world, and I’m going to keep trying to find ways to do it better.

2 thoughts on “The Twitter following controversy

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