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Thoughts on Twitter

Dipping into a little social-media nonsense on this one.. hope you enjoy it!

[ Icon: Twitter Bird ] I have been using Twitter now for around two years. In that time, I have gone from hating Twitter to practically loving it. The more I use Twitter, the more I appreciate its value in terms of social networking, self-expression, and even online entertainment. What can I say, it’s just fun to be working online while sharing nano-thoughts with a group of like-minded individuals. In this post, I share some insight and elaborate on some important aspects of Twitter: following & followers, profiles, avatars, and tweets. Not all of it is especially earth-shattering stuff, but hopefully it will contribute to the growing pool of understanding about everyone’s favorite micro-blogging service. So without further ado..

On Followers and Following

I love it when people follow me on Twitter. Getting those emails that say, “Captain Crunch is now following you on Twitter!” always brightens my routine. Almost religiously, I check out the profiles of my followers, their followers, and who they follow themselves. After checking out many Twitter pages, I have noticed the following general types of Twitter profiles:

Following many, but with few followers
This is a common profile: people who follow thousands of others without many followers for themselves. Most of the time, this is the profile of somebody involved with a marketing campaign. Like, you know, one of those people or companies that thinks they “get it” by leveraging Twitter as a marketing tool. Although I find this sort of mindless nonsense embarrassingly shallow and obvious, there are always a small handful of folks that fall for it, or are just happy to get a new follower and so return the “favor” by following in return. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Another frequently observed motive behind the “following-many-with-few-followers” profile involves building up your followers by following those with high rates of return follows. In other words, some Twitterers (twits?) will go out and follow as many people as they possibly can find (focusing on those who often follow back) in hopes of getting themselves a large number of followers in return. For example, I once watched as one twit launched his profile by following over 5,000 other twits. Within a month or so, the twit had amassed a following of nearly 1,000 followers, while simultaneously reducing the number of twits he was following by half. Unfortunately, there are many who play this game, all for the sake of a number.
A couple of other points about this type of profile.. Whenever I see someone doing this, I can’t help but think of spam. People who return-follow such profiles are similar to people who respond to spam comments on their blog or think they’ve inherited a million dollars from some rich dude in Zambia. Seriously, how much value can you get from watching hundreds or thousands of tweets per minute roll past your screen? How many of those people are you going to reply to? Direct message? Form a connection with? I don’t know, but it seems to me that the more people you are following, the less time and attention you have for each of them. If you are one of those people who is following several thousands of people with very few followers for yourself, I would love to hear your logic for doing so. If you think it isn’t obvious, you are sadly mistaken.
Following few, and with few followers
As Twitter becomes more and more successful, another frequently seen profile is that of the typical new user: few followers, and following few. We all experience this at one point or another, however each of us has different ways of networking and building things up. For myself, my policy has always been to only follow those who first follow me and are worth following, as determined by tweet content, type of followers, who they are following, and their profile information, website, and so on. Having a great website to go with your Twitter profile is a great way to look more follow-worthy, even if it the whole concept of doing so does seem a little backwards. What trips me out is when I see profiles with like 500 or 5000 tweets, but with only a handful of followers. Of course, when this situation is reversed, we may be getting into the next type of profile..
Following few, but with many followers
I once read somewhere that what’s-his-name has like 30,000 followers but does not follow anybody. While that’s admirable to some, it also seems a bit egotistical, arrogant, and rather depressing. Of course, that is a rare case, as most human beings actually listen to others and care about what they have to say, especially when people are trying to communicate with them. Nonetheless, if there is a sign of popularity in the world of Twitter, this is its profile: many followers (like thousands), but following very few. If this sounds like you, I am surprised that you are even reading this, as you probably have better things to do with your time. Think big names here, like Scoble, What’s-his-name, and all of those other over-extended big-shots that I honestly couldn’t care less about. What’s sad is how desperately some twits try to be something they’re not, building up as many followers as possible just to impress others. My advice? Be who you are and make the most out of your natural network. Whether that’s 4 or 400, you might be surprised at the benefits.
Following many, and with many followers
Long-established, well-maintained and well-cultivated Twitter profiles enjoy this profile: many followers, following many. This type of profile typically requires some level of notoriety or fame, or else some really kick-ass tweets, 24/7. The reason for this is that most Twitterers are finicky, picky, and flighty little things. They will pick you up and follow you until one of your tweets is a little off-key — and then, BAM — they’re gone, never to be twittered again. Of course, if you happen to be some rock star or media darling or something, the bounce rate is much lower because people are more willing to stomach anything that you might fancy to say. In fact, many people base their own actions on the behavior of celebrities, which is really sad. Conversely, reciprocating or even beginning with thousands of follows requires much work, patience, and attention. Nonetheless, I continue to see signs of these huge, well-established networks and circles of people who follow each other and stay connected with Twitter. Interestingly enough, it seems that more and more, these networks are merging, growing larger, and ultimately converging into a single, global Twitter network. Maybe.

On Profiles

I have been thinking lately about finally customizing my Twitter home page. Since signing up with Twitter in 2006, I have been using the defualt Twitter profile page. You know, the sky-blue background with a couple of clouds or something and the default colors for everything else. Yes it’s boring, but it works and is very familiar to people dropping by to check things out. Even so, I can’t help but wonder how many people base their decision to follow on whether the person’s profile page looks “cool” or otherwise satisfying enough. Personally, although I do enjoy a pimped-out home page, it generally is not as important as the person’s follow and tweet profile. Also, I have seen some hideous Twitter background images — neon colors, tiled fractals, party snaps, mug shots, and the list goes on. This degree of tastelessness is worrisome because it so closely resembles the type of garbage currently infesting that hell-hole called MySpace. Seriously, people, if you must customize your Twitter page, use some common sense and good judgment — just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. If I ever find the time to customize my Twitter page, I am going to emulate some of the more subtle, understated customizations out there: limited color palette, well-branded imagery, uniform colors and fonts and so on. Think “mature,” “distinguished,” and “professional”, as opposed to “cheap”, “sleazy”, and “look at me”.

On Avatars

Avatars are a wonderful thing: they represent everything about you within a small, square image and may be changed as frequently or as infrequently as desired. There are some really great Twitter avatars out there in the Twitterverse these days. I particularly enjoy anything that is distinct, unique, and visually interesting. Sadly, many people choose to simply use their mugshot for their avatar, and that’s just fine, I suppose, but there are so many ways to show your originality that it is almost a travesty of justice to simply slap some vanilla snapshot of yourself as if it’s something worth looking at. If that’s “just you,” then fine, be that way. But keep in mind that you can prop it out, change up lighting, switch angles, and even use Photoshop to mix it up. Whatever you do, be yourself, of course. Beyond that, I also enjoy watching the ever-changing avatars of people who are constantly updating their image. It’s like watching a virtual identity crisis unfold in real time. Conversely, some Twitterers, such as myself, haven’t changed their avatars in years. Some don’t have the time, some have managed to find that perfect image, and others may simply not know how to upload a new one. I suppose it all comes down to branding: everyone does it, but some are better at it than others. Oh, and one more thing: blinking, flashing, or animated avatars are extremely pathetic! I recently was forced to stop following a long-time follower because they had changed their avatar into some hideous, color-changing animated llama-looking thing — it was continually flashing from red to orange to bright yellow, and was just too much for me to stomach — nobody needs to look that desperate for attention!

On Tweets

The heart of Twitter of course is the never-ending stream of consciousness manifest in the short text messages known as “tweets”. They are fun to watch, neat to read, and occasionally worthy of a response. Some of my favorite tweets are the ones that are short, sweet, and to the point. Like, “crash landing my bi-plane”, “dropping my first hit”, or “bleeding out my eyeballs”. It’s Twitter for crying out loud! Short and sweet is the name of the game! That said, some of my least favorite types of tweets are as follows (no pun intended!):

Multiple Re-Tweets (mRTs)
Sure, if it’s news-worthy, life-altering, or absolutely “must-see”, then a single retweet (RT) is certainly in order. What I really can’t stand are multiple retweets, as if we all didn’t get it the first three times. Retweet it once or twice if it is absolutely essential, otherwise, shut your little tweet-hole and move on with your life.
Suck-up Re-Tweets (sRTs)
Even worse than multiple RTs are suck-up RTs. Like when someone you are following suddenly retweets something that Guy Kawasaki or Darren Rowse (or some other web idol) happened to tweet. I always laugh when I see those because it’s like watching a dog try to lick peanut butter off the tip of his nose — completely desperate, futile and hilarious! The only thing more pathetic are multiple suck-up RTs.
“Cool” Twitterers (@, @, @)
I don’t even know what to call these things, but they are the absolute worst! You know what I’m talking about here, right? Those tweets that include nothing more than a list of @friends that some twit happens to think are just so flipping great that they just have to tell the whole wide world. Stuff like this makes me sick: “Cool-ass dwarves that you MUST follow: @doc, @happy, @sleepy, @sneezy, @dopey, @bashful, @grumpy” — it’s like high school all over again. Please, stop the popularity contest and get a life.

Later, Tweeps!

Twitter is a social phenomenon that will require much more analysis, use, and contemplation before its full significance will be understood. With this post, I hope that the first-hand experience and insight that is shared will contribute to the growing body of literature and thought regarding the incredible micro-blogging service that is Twitter.

Jeff Starr
About the Author Jeff Starr = Web Developer. Security Specialist. WordPress Buff.
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16 responses
  1. Wow this article is like ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Twitter’ :) very informative and insightful as well. Your observation of tweets and tweeters are just so in-depth and true – my pet peeve will be people with very little followers but following millions of people out there adding you. I understand their desperation to spread their cause / fame / business / blog but it’s simply not the correct way to do it by spamming ‘Follows’.

    I only follow a certain tweeter when I find that their tweets are worth following. I wouldn’t say mine are great and deserve the attention, but there are in fact many tweeters out there who tweet selective and informatively, some of which I follow (and the rest are yet to be found).

    Boot-licking retweets are not only downright annoying but also burdens the server with unnecessary requests. Too much @s sounds like they’re more busy socialising that actually tweeting, heh.

    Usually when I am followed, I will drop by the tweeter’s profile and perhaps their website. I get a little disgusted if the website happens to be about making money online, casino or stuff like that (I bet keywords like these would have placed my comment in the moderation queue). I will usually reciprocate and return the favour as a sign of ‘thanks for following me!’.

    Anyway, happy new year and may you have a wonderful and fruitful year ahead. God speed!

  2. Wow. This is a very comprehensive Twitter-usage analysis.

    Where do I stand? I’m a newbie. I follow few and few follow me. I haven’t started to abuse it for its marketing potential, so I have no need to follow hundreds or thousands of people. And I doubt I could really keep up with the tweets from hundreds of thousands of people.

    So I just focus on a few people that I think might be interesting and there’s very little strategy involved in getting people to follow me. I mean, it too brightens up my day when I get that nice little email and I know that someone has probably found me interesting. Of course, as you mentioned, it might be some over-zealous marketer who doesn’t care about my tweets anyway. lol

    Anyway, thanks for the write-up, it was a thorough and interesting read. :-)

  3. I’ve really tried to like Twitter, but I definitely find it too pueril, and from a human relations point of view, very cold. Also, as for Facebook, it’s way too much time consuming for my liking.

    I don’t understand the craze that Twitter generates :/

  4. I had to come out of lurk/rss reader mode to comment on this one. I am so glad someone else feels the same as I do.

    I also don’t auto follow, I watch for the same patterns as yourself and pretty much agree with what you said. I don’t follow too many, though, nor have thousands of followers, yet those I do follow provide me with value. Mostly, anyway. :)

    Twitter is not to be used as a popularity contest, and I absolutely detest those who try to make it so. A couple of other beefs: One who would tweet a Problogger and/or Twitip post before Darren Rowse would be able to. I swear he lived on those two sites and kept refreshing till he saw a new post. The same person would send an auto follow DM with Tweetlater, suggesting the person follow problogger, chris brogan, guy kawasaki and a couple of others. And he’s trying to make a living as a social media (read Twitter) expert. Sigh.

    There are a few other things I do, when someone follows me, and that is to scroll through a few pages of their tweets. If it’s mostly marketing BS, I don’t bother. Also, like you, I check the ones they follow to get an idea of how they found me, what their philosophy is, and of course, any website they have.

    And one other pet peeve of mine is those who follow you, yet their tweets are private. They certainly don’t get a follow back, that’s for sure.

    Anyway, this is a good time to say thank you for this site. I found you many months ago and subscribed because you provide me with so much value. May your New Year be as good as it can be.

  5. Jessi Hance January 4, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    I love Twitter too, though I’m a “few followers – few followed” member. That’s fine with me. Mostly, it’s people I know in the flesh, and it’s a nice supplemental way to stay in touch.

    I would have liked to keep my profile public, but had to make it private due to Twitter spammers. I can’t think of a nicer term.

    Examples:

    Two minutes after I tweet my upset at some government-sanctioned killings, some reactionary jerk follows and uses Twitter replies to attack me. Their tweet history contains nothing thoughtful or sympathetic to anyone in the least. They’re clearly abusing Twitter search.

    Same thing with people trying to market themselves. Certain topics seem to make them salivate, and they try to latch on.

    It got to be too many to block one at a time.

  6. Jylan Wynne January 4, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    I agree with many of the things you say Jeff, as well as many of the commenters. When someone follows me, I normally check out their profile, read their latest tweets and if I like what I see then they get followed back. If they have too many promotional tweets, too many useless @replies, no tweets at all, or a high following/being followed ratio, then I won’t follow them.

    I find that 80% or so of the follows I get now are all promotional profiles, which is quite sad.

  7. I’m glad posts like this one, I also saw some people who follows everyone that seems to have an auto-follow script, so it’s easy to build a really big amount of followers, but it’s more difficult to create relationships.

  8. @Jessi Hance: Sorry to hear about your experience with Twitter spammers/flamers. I was once a victim of flamers and it sucks that people are abusing the Internet and social networking / microblogging sites to do trivial and childish things like that.

    And there are lots of desperate people out there who only wants to tell the world that they can teach you how to make lots and lots of money online :( I’ve tried banning them but I got so tired of it that I just ignore them from now on, heh.

  9. Jeff Starr

    Thank you all for the great feedback! I wrote this article as a way to purge some of my thoughts on Twitter, but now see that some of the things that I have been thinking about Twitter are also experienced by others. Especially resonating throughout this very thoughtful thread are similar experiences with the whole “who-follows-whom” thing and the increasing prevalence of spammers and junk marketers within the Twitterverse.

    One thing that interests me that I didn’t take the time to discuss involves followers who speak/type in a non-native language. I occasionally get followed by people who speak French, Spanish, and so on, and who also seem to have great profiles. I always feel as if I should reciprocate the follows of such individuals, but then wonder about how much benefit that would be to either party. Their tweets would be neither understood nor replied to, although links are somewhat universal, and may be reciprocated to some degree or another.

    Also, what about followers who have their tweets protected? What are the implications of return following someone with their tweets on lock-down? If they follow you, should you return the favor, or respect their privacy? So far, I have reciprocated several such Twitterers, and have been met with positivity on the surface, but it still feels rather odd, imho.

  10. Jessi Hance January 7, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    Hi Jeff, about folks with protected tweets, like me: speaking for myself, as I mentioned previously, I only locked them down to keep the riff raff out. Any follow requests from friendly human beings are welcome! I imagine that many others feel as I do.

    I hope no one will take it personally if I don’t *always* reciprocate by following, though. I have to find the optimal number of twitterers to follow that will nurture me through my work day, but not distract me unduly.

  11. Jeff Starr

    Hi Jesse, yes you did mention that — I should have read more carefully! I think your strategy is used by many who choose to protect their tweets, and completely understand the reason for doing so. Carefully selecting a choice group of people to follow is probably greatly facilitated by keeping things private and eliminating arbitrary followers. I can imagine that it makes for a much more intimate, peaceful, and rewarding Twitter experience. Thanks for the follow-up! :)

  12. Hi Jeff – I love twitter. I have taken a bit of a break from it but otherwise it’s fun and I find work through it.

    I will follow almost anyone who follows me unless it is a spammer or someone whose profile only has links to their own posts. Obviously, I have not built a relationship with all of these people and I can’t possibly keep up with all of the tweets but it has allowed me to “meet” a lot of interesting people and has helped me get more freelance work / leads.

    I completely agree that not having a customized background is better than the terrible ones that some people have. I try not to judge someone based on the background but it can be hard not to. Some will judge a profile negatively if the background is the default one but I always figure the person doesn’t have time or doesn’t know how to do it. Since I use tweetdeck, I rarely see the profile page anyway.

    Thanks for writing about a topic I could discuss intelligently ;-) And Happy New Year!

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