As I wrote last month, I spent nearly five years using my Twitter account very privately — almost like a personal bookmark archive. And then I started using hashtags and discovered that complete strangers began to “follow” me. Curious, I began to experiment further. In the process, I’ve become a little wary of the culture of “building a twitter following”.
One of the next things I picked up after “use hashtags” (which still seems a useful practice to me) is that it is considered good Twitter practice to follow people who follow you. A kind of courtesy, if nothing else. I’d originally only followed friends or other people whose tweets I found really interesting. I began “returning the follows” of people whose tweets seemed at least mildly interesting. I noticed that a lot of these people had very large Twitter followings and that their “follower” numbers often roughly matched their “following” numbers. As the only way I chose new people to follow out of the blue was by having discovered them from reading some article or by having searched for a topic, I naively assumed they’d searched for hashtags I’d used and that my tweets were proving useful.
Except for the fact that many of these people had followings in the five figures or more. They could not possibly be reading the tweets of that many people.
There was even one person whose follow led me to what looked to be an elaborate network with a reputation management consultant at the center and a ring of probably robot followers (all of whom had pictures that looked like ladies of the night) who did nothing but retweet his tweets.
My next experiment involved what I discovered to be a much-touted practice of “Building a Twitter Following”: Follow/Unfollow. First you follow someone. You wait a little while to see if they follow you. If they don’t follow you, you unfollow them. Except that you don’t do it one by one. You go and mine the followings of other people whose feeds seem to be relevant to you and you follow a selection (all if you like) of their followers and follow them. Some might follow you back (that’s probably what I was politely doing before) and you keep them and, after a little while, unfollow the rest and repeat the procedure.
I tried this twice — first from the Twitter account of someone I don’t know whose feed/followers looked a bit like mine already. Some people followed me back. Then I tried it with the followers of a filmmaker friend of mine whose account doesn’t look like mine (even though still interesting, as I used to make films). This response was more interesting, as few of her followers followed me back but I found myself suddenly being followed by film people who were not her followers. Got it: I was being followed by people who were “Building their Twitter Followers”. People amassing followers via tactics.
And today, though I realize now I’ve seen this before without realizing what had happened, I was followed by someone whose interests on their Twitter feed have absolutely nothing to do with mine. In fact, the person (who tweets every few minutes) seems to have set up his Twitter account to sell crafts and jewelry. And he has retweeted several times tweets that say something like “I will give you 500 Twitter followers verified and active users, 100% real and verified for $35” (or $5 sometimes).
This begins to shed a strange light on the mystery of how and why people follow 10,000+ people and have 10,000+ followers.
But what does it actually mean? First it means you go to the next level and sort your followers into lists so you can ignore the tweets of almost all of them. Which then means there is an awful lof of activity on Twitter that is completely without heart or mind or soul.
I was talking with an old friend who is an amazing choreographer recently. I’m making him a website and it’s a painstakingly slow process because he is so completely interested in dance itself and so uninterested in self-promotion of any kind. Pulling teeth would be easier. But he was talking about how the field of contemporary dance has become so much less interesting than the really invigorating 1970s. And he said that it’s doomed to get worse because all the arts funders are interested in now is audience building.
And I thought, yes, that’s it. That’s an issue in the world of social media too. When we become more interested in having an audience than actually exploring, developing and sharing ideas — that’s the breeding ground of non-thinking. It’s like photocopying a photocopy endlessly. Eventually there’s nothing but a blur.