On pruning twitter followers and why it matters who follows you

I listen to a couple podcasts by Cliff Ravenscraft (Podcast Answerman and Social Media Serenity) and really value the information he gives. But something he’s said a few times recently has been bugging me but a couple brain cells just clicked and I think I get it now. One of his recommendations is to look through your followers on Twitter and remove those that you don’t like (e.g. if they’re spammers). Yes, Twitter is full of spammers but that doesn’t mean you have to play the spammer game. We are interested in using social media for creating social good, and does that have to include acting like or consorting with spammers? No.

The lesson I’m learning that the goal of social media for social good isn’t like the typical goaling of online marketing. The “social good” part means, to me, that the socializing I’m doing online is itself good quality. Rather than follow the typical practice of broadcasting a well crafted message to as many people as possible, social networking and social media is about engaging in relationships. Using these tools consciously to create social good includes ones own activity being socially good.

It is pretty obvious to not follow a spammer. The spammer is just spewing links knowing that with enough volume of spewage that a percentage of people will click on the link and do something which earns them money. It’s a numbers game, spew enough stuff out there and even if it’s half a percent clickthrough rate you can make money. Does that sound like the creation of social good? Nope. In other words, it’s obvious to not even follow the spammers.

The typical advice for working with social networking sites like twitter is to get as many followers as possible. The more followers, the more people who see your message, and the greater your impact. That sounds like the spammer model and spamming is just a few steps down the road from legitimate marketing techniques.

But there is a different way of thinking about social networking sites. As Cliff says over and over, it’s about forming relationships. Get it? Social networking means forming relationships and being social via online communication. Right?

Having observed the spammers for awhile it’s clear they aren’t interested in relationship building. They’re interested in spewing links. Try an experiment, send one of them a reply based on one of their postings. What happens? If they respond then perhaps they’re interested in relationship building. I tried this the other day, one of my recent finds who has been posting links to the kind of thing I’m interested in sent out a link on an article I was interested in. So I sent an at-reply asking for the person’s thoughts on the subject. Have yet to get a response. Hurm.

As noted above it’s obvious that it’s a mistake to follow a spammer. It just means your twitter-space will be filled by their spewage, making it harder for you to manage any relationships. I’ve found it helpful to relegate some of the twitter accounts to twitter lists, if the given account is full of interesting items but is not an account where a live human is engaging in conversation, I’ll still want access to the information they’re sending but not interested in seeing it in the main twitter timeline. Putting them in a list let’s me access them while keeping their tweet volume over on the side.

But what about ones own followers? Why does it matter who your followers are? And how does one go about removing a follower you don’t want to follow you? Those are the questions my mind has been stuck on. What does Cliff mean and is he smoking crack?

Again, if it’s good to have as many followers as you can get, then does it matter if some of your followers are spammers? Having observed Twitter for awhile one strategy the spammers use is to follow other accounts en masse knowing that a few will follow them back. But I take a look at the accounts of people who follow me and don’t automatically follow them back. I’m looking to follow people with whom I want to have conversation, and not be spewed to the limit with nonconversation.

Reflecting long and hard I’ve come to the conclusion the goal isn’t as many followers as you can get. Instead the goal is to have high quality followers with whom you’re having conversation and with whom you’re making an impact.

Why does it matter who your followers are? First, one of the habits when following someone on twitter is to look at who they follow and who their followers are. It’s likely people you share interests with will have found others who share the same interests. That goes both ways. Other people are doing the same thing so if they come to your account and start looking at your followers but find a bunch of spammers are following you what will it say about you?

Another way your followers matter connects back to the intention of having high quality conversation via social media networking connections. The spammer sitting in your follower list is not adding anything to high quality conversation. Even if you’re not seeing their spewage, because they’re following you they have a connection to you.

This is about affirming ones intention to have high quality conversation via social networking sites. It’s clear the spammers detract from high quality conversation. Hence, it’s best to shun them in every way possible.

The next question is how does one go about removing unwanted followers. The method will vary based on the capabilities of each social networking site. On twitter it appears the only two tools are to block an account or to report it for spam. The action you take of course depends on the account in question. An account that’s sending out a large volume of useful postings doesn’t deserve to be reported for spam, but you may want to block them anyway.

Taking these steps goes counter to some of the conventional wisdom of online marketing. This conventional wisdom says to get as many followers as possible. However ask your self, is it more valuable to have a million followers of whom half are robotic accounts just spewing spam, or is it more valuable to have a thousand followers who actually pay attention to your thoughts? Which set of followers will make a better “social good” impact? And, which set of followers are more likely to hug you and buy you a beer if you meet them some day?