To follow back, or not to follow back?

By Greg Stevens on September 21st, 2012

There is a deep ideological rift in social media. On one side are those who think that automatically following back everyone who follows you on Twitter is a base, narcissistic and insincere way of inflating your follower count. On the other side are those who think following back is the best and most effective way for small businesses and non-celebrities to grow an audience, and that people who do not follow back are pretentious posers who are bitter over the fact that they are not famous.

In blog posts and opinion columns, these views are expressed with passion and zeal. In comments sections and on Twitter itself, the debates can become personal and acidic. So I believe it’s time to lay it out, once and for all: to follow back, or not to follow back? I’ll take a look at both sides and, in the interest of greater world peace, will propose a compromise solution to bring both sides together.

You’re doing it wrong

The loudest arguments against using the “follow back” strategy on Twitter come from old-school internet ideologues and technological purists. The “follow” relationship is supposed to mean something. It’s not the same as the “like” relationship or the “friend” relationship or the “I validate your existence” relationship, and if you use it for a purpose other than the purpose for which it is intended then you are breaking the internet.

They don’t always use language as stark as this, of course. However, if you dig under the surface of the practical arguments against following-back, you can easily find the emotion of an offense to ideology: people who use a follow back strategy to gain followers are quite simply using Twitter wrongly.

The practical arguments usually go something like this. If you follow thousands of people, there is literally no way that you can read all of the tweets of all of the people you are following. The information that you care about becomes diluted, and if you want to keep track of the content from people who matter, you have to create separate lists for them. You are not only making life harder for yourself, but you are making the “follow” relationship functionally meaningless.

The people whom you are following don’t benefit from the fact that you are following them, because you aren’t actually reading their content. Klout and other “influence measures” have caught on to this, as well. They rank the importance of follower count as negligible to compared to the importance of retweets and replies when evaluating influence. So following people whose tweets you never intend to read literally does nobody any good.

Beyond the practical argument, the emotional argument is that it’s just plain wrong. If you want to tell the world who and what you like, then “like” them on Facebook.  If you want to tell the world who you are friends with, then “friend” them. If you want to show the world how well-connected you are, then connect with people on LinkedIn. If you want someone to acknowledge that you are a worthwhile human being, then go someplace else.

But none of these things is what “following” on Twitter is supposed to mean. Following someone on Twitter isn’t supposed to be an advertisement for the world, it’s suppose to be a convenience for you: a way to collect content from people whose content you want to read. To follow people whose content you don’t care about is to cheapen and abuse the whole idea of following on Twitter. It defiles the sanctity of the “follow” relationship.

Who do you think you are?

The loudest arguments in favor of following back come from marketing strategists and social media publicists. For a publicist, social media are for networking and building relationships. It’s ego to assume that people should just follow you, out of the blue, without you reciprocating. If you’re not a celebrity, then you need to build your social networks the way that publicists and sales people have always built their social networks: based on the symbolic “handshake” of the reciprocal relationship.

Closely related to the “follow back” strategy is the “follow others in order to get them to follow you” strategy. The pair of these, taken together, forms one of the more popular strategies that some social media services use to grow the followers of unknown brands or entertainment industry “rising stars”. Follow a hundred people, see how many follow you back, un-follow people who don’t, and repeat. At the same time, make sure to follow back anybody who follows you, and pretty soon even the Twitter account for your pet dog’s lemonade stand can have 5,000 followers… as long as they are following 5,200 people in return.

Ideologically, from the public relations perspective, this kind of strategy isn’t unusual. When you follow someone who might be interested in your blog or your product, or whatever it is that your Twitter account is promoting, that person gets a notification that you exist. It’s a way of drawing attention to your brand. Sure, they may follow you back and then ignore you. On the other hand, they may follow you back and get drawn in by your tweets. Isn’t that the whole point of social media marketing to begin with?

Moreover, if you’re not a celebrity, then why wouldn’t you follow people back? It’s the sociable, considerate, and friendly thing to do. Is it some kind of ego boost, to be able to tell the world that you have all of these followers without even having to “try”? Is it because you think it makes you seem like a celebrity? If you view social media as a kind of analog to real-world social interaction, then not following-back when someone follows on Twitter you is like not smiling back when someone smiles at you at a party. Who do you think you are?

The third path: blame Twitter

It’s important that these two sides come together, for the sake of a brighter tomorrow. I propose that we achieve this by focusing our attention on the real source of the problem, namely Twitter itself.

Media and public relations people would never have needed the “follow-to-get-followers” strategy if Twitter had built in, from the beginning, a way to do “push” advertising on Twitter.  When Twitter was first rolled out, its entire functional model was centered on “pull” advertising: I go out into the Twitter universe and find the people or brands that I want to follow. They do not find me.

This “pull” method of making connections puts small businesses and unknown people at an obvious disadvantage: how can I get my face in front of people, if they don’t already know enough about me to seek me out? So in the world before promoted suggestions and promoted tweets, marketing professionals came up with a work-around for “push” marketing: follow people in order to notify people that you exist, and see what happens.

People also wouldn’t need to use the “follow” relationship to signify everything from friendship to personal validation if Twitter had provided, from the beginning, different ways to express relationships. If the ideological purists really think that the “follow” relationship should have a specific purpose, and only be used for that purpose, then they need to convince Twitter to add the ability to “like” or “star” other Twitter accounts.

That way, if I like you and want to acknowledge my connection to you but don’t necessarily want all of your tweets in my feed, then I can star your profile. For those out there who are overly ego-driven, profiles could even display how many others have starred you. You can say, “I may only have 800 followers, but over 20,000 people have starred me!” How satisfying that would be.

The real lesson in this debate is this: when people don’t use a tool “the way they should”, it usually means that the tool itself is broken. The only way to heal the world of this “Follow-Back-Or-Not” divide is to address the actual root of the problem: make Twitter better.