I’ve noticed a trend – at least, on [my own Twitter profile](http://twitter.com/vantan) – where a number of random Twitter users start following me. Their Twitter usernames and posts are about subjects that have little relation to my own tweets. This makes me suspect that they may not be following me out of genuine interest.
This suspicion is heightened when I notice that they are following many people but have very few followers themselves. This is a tactic used by newcomers to gain followers based on the principle of reciprocity – if you follow me, I feel obliged to follow you back.
Back in the early days when the Twitter community was still small and cosy, it was considered polite to return the interest shown in your tweets. We early adopters knew each other on Twitter, so it was like an extension of our friendship and recognition of each other’s presence.
On my part, I started using Twitter thanks to a recommendation by [Coolinsights](http://coolinsights.blogspot.com/). Later, at SXSW 2007, Twitter was promoted by various respectable figures in the Interactive community as the next big thing and I started using Twitter more frequently. It took a while before the Singapore community caught on in a big way, but I think we’ve made up for the lag. I now have many real-life friends on Twitter.
Now, however, with businesses and politicians jumping onto the Twitter bandwagon (as they did with blogs previously), you can’t really be sure if their tweets are written by them or by some PR agent. You also wonder if they’re following you because they’re really interested in you as a customer or constituent. I tend to think this is the exception rather than the norm.
So likewise, I view new followers of my Twitter profile with either gratitude or scepticism. I recognise the real followers based on some profiles, such as:
– Being a real human being, instead of a company
– Being a Singaporean / Asian or an expat working in the region
– Having some interest in common with me (alumnus, geek, musician…)
– Being the real friend of a real friend of mine
From experience, these are the followers who will stay on, because they have a genuine interest in what you have to say.
On the other end of the spectrum, I tend to regard these followers as fickle:
– Those clearly representing a company or cause which I may not be interested in
– Those talking only/mainly about their company and its products
– Self-proclaimed social media/marketing gurus (whom I’ve never heard of) who promote their expertise very heavily and therefore must walk the talk by showing they have a large number of Twitter followers themselves. The truly famous gurus don’t need to follow me; we’re the ones following them!
– Random strangers, some of whom appear to have links with the soft porn industry or similar trashy affiliations
Don’t celebrate if a horde of them decide to start following you, because you may lose them as quickly as they came.
Because I have observed how easy it is to gain and lose followers quickly, I was cynical when a local paper featured a young boy who had the most number of Twitter followers in Singapore. That was not a very objective observation, because one can easily attain that number if you follow even more people – at least, in the early days of Twitter. Even if 20% of the people you follow don’t return the favour, you could still gain a huge number of reciprocal followers. At a glance, it is certainly impressive – but I’m more interested in how these numbers came about and whether it can be maintained.
For a more accurate gauge of one’s popularity on Twitter, we should instead look at the ratio of people followed versus the people one is following, and not only at the absolute number of followers one has at that point in time. Even then, we all have our own way of defining what a ‘success’ is. Some use Twitter as a means to an end (self-promotion, networking, landing that next marketing job) while others may play the numbers game.
Also, we should look at the dropout rate for that Twitter profile over a period of time. It is not easy to sustain a huge following, especially if other users followed you simply out of politeness (a short-term tactic). As time goes by we will follow more people and the list of updates will grow longer. Some of us may then start to trim our lists and only continue to follow other users who post something of interest to us.
So my theory is that over time, the genuine Twitter conversationalists will sustain their followings and enjoy a gradual but steady increase, while those who rely mainly on reciprocity without adding value to their Tweets, may enjoy bigger growth spurts but will also experience a higher dropout rate. These falling numbers however can be covered up if you continue following new people on Twitter who follow you back.
The take-home point is to be genuine both ways: as a Twitter user (in posting updates) and as a follower. It saves everyone a lot of trouble in the long run because you’ll get updates from people you’re really interested in, and you’ll have conversations with other people with common interests. Less is more.
As with all other forms of social media: Once a fad matures, one’s success comes from staying genuine (and interesting).