The Real Solution to Fix the "Twitter Game"

twitter-gameTwitter has been initiating a crackdown of sorts on sites that offer “automated unfollow” services such as my own SocialToo.com.  Since we announced we were removing it on SocialToo, at least 3 other services have also been asked to remove the functionality, which enables people to automatically unfollow others that unfollow them on Twitter.  I have also noticed Twitter is now cracking down on Twitter accounts that perform this practice.  When chatting with Twitter, their reasoning is that auto-unfollow “perpetuates the idea that Twitter is about follower counts”.  Assuming that this is the real reasoning behind the request, I’d like to suggest a more effective means of killing that idea: kill services that allow proactive follow in the first place and follower churn will go away.

Let me first explain what proactive follow is.  There are many services out there right now that enable you to find new followers based on keywords.  You specify search terms, perhaps based on your brand, and these services then go out and find people Tweeting with these keywords, and the service follows those people.  Some will even send a public @mention or DM if they meet your search criteria.  The entire hope is that those people will follow back (note that not everyone does this automatically), increasing your follower count and potential reach.

The problem with this method is that Twitter has limits in place.  As people unfollow you as you are increasing your numbers in this way, soon you will be following way more people than are following you back.  Twitter has a limit right now, in which if you’re following around 10% more of the people that are following you on Twitter, you will not be able to follow any more.  So what happens is these people using these “get more follower” services then use legit services like my SocialToo to unfollow all of the people that have stopped following them, bringing their ratio back in check.  It’s a direct rebellion against Twitter’s rules and regulations, and I don’t blame Twitter for being concerned about it.  In fact, I refuse to allow proactive follow on SocialToo just for this reason – we are not a “get more followers fast” site.  We’re a utility that enables you to manage your Twitter stream better and easier.

So Twitter has come up with the best solution they can come up with – “let’s kill the sites that are providing automatic unfollow and the follower churn will go away”.  The idea being if users can’t unfollow those users that have unfollowed them after they proactively went out and followed everyone, it’s a lot harder to game the system and break Twitter’s rules.  Based on my experience with what users are telling me on SocialToo, this breaks Twitter for many big brands using the service in a legit manner though.  Let me share a few use-cases people are telling me about after we removed it on SocialToo:

Legit Use-Cases for Auto-Unfollow

Some Brands Just Have Big Numbers — On SocialToo we service some really big brands.  Let’s face it: these brands have a lot of followers.  Following those followers back gives their followers a sense that the brand is listening to them.  It’s a PR move, as well as a customer service move because their followers can now DM them.  For instance, I followed @PCSki the other day, hoping to be able to get a spot in for my wife’s and my Ski Vacation to Park City Utah.  Because they followed me back, I was able to keep our conversation private.  This reciprocal follow is an important piece for Brands looking to communicate better with their followers and customers.  @PCSki got a sale (and future blog post) out of me because of that relationship.

Now, assuming we’re dealing with millions of followers, or hundreds of thousands of followers, or even thousands of followers it is absolutely impossible to continue following back the people that follow you based on Twitter’s 10% ratio limit.  If I want to follow everyone back, the fact is about 1/3 to 1/2 of those people I follow back will unfollow me at some point, and my ratio breaks.  I’m then stuck waiting until more people follow me before I can follow back more.  This is bad for brands, especially those with bigger numbers.  If you think numbers aren’t important for a brand, you’re flat out wrong.

Auto Unfollow Kills the Churners — The main reason I created automatic unfollow on SocialToo was because it’s another effective technique at combating spammers if you do auto follow (see above for some good reasons to auto follow as a brand ).  For a good auto follow service to occur, it’s the natural thing to do to offer auto unfollow services as well in order to keep out the spammers you might follow unintentionally.  This is also the reason we offer DM filters and other filtering services on SocialToo.  For those gaming the system, the minute they unfollow me to hope their numbers stay up, I immediately unfollow them as well, and their numbers don’t increase at all.

Auto Unfollow Enables Steady Growth, Despite Friends Unfollowing — if auto unfollow were not available, a typical brand or person wanting to enable auto follow on their account would go as follows: Number of friends increase. Number of friends stay stagnant until ratio is met.  Number of friends increase again.  Steady growth is not attainable with Twitter’s current ratio limit and the lack of auto unfollow.

The Solution

So what can Twitter do?  I understand they’re between a rock and a hard place here.  They could remove the ratio limits, but then the churners (or gamers) would take over again.  They could kill automated unfollow services, but other services will still take over – I can already think of  a good way to create a browser extension that does it on a user-by-user basis if we wanted to.  Also, killing automated unfollow removes the ability for users to defend themselves against the churners.  Twitter could just let the churning happen, but then jealousy happens and people complain (not sure that’s a bad thing as I think people can see through the fakes, but I understand their viewpoint).  Twitter could remove the numbers, only enabling them in private for each individual, but that would remove some of the fun and competition of Twitter.

The only decent solution is to kill the services that are enabling proactive follow.  Disable those enabling the ability to search by keyword and follow based on that keyword.  This is a pure API-based service that Twitter can shut off at the source pretty easily.  Once these are gone, churning, and the “Twitter Game” will be over for those abusing the system.

The Fact is Twitter is About Numbers

While I don’t think Twitter wants people gaming the system to create more numbers, I think Twitter knows that the only way to grow the service is to enable people to increase their number of followers and grow an audience.  If you don’t think that, you’re lying to yourself.  Everyone wants more followers, especially if you’re a brand or business.

Twitter prominently displays follower counts on each user’s page, along with a list of who’s following them, the number of lists they’re on, the number of lists they’ve created, and the list goes on.  Twitter has a Suggested User List  – the entire goal being to give people a larger number of people those people can follow and find interesting things from.  Users get higher prominence in Google if their numbers are higher on Twitter.  Numbers are everything to Twitter, let’s not kid ourselves.

Twitter Needs to Kill the Proactive Follow

The only way Twitter is going to fix the problem they see at hand is to kill services enabling users and brands to go out and proactively find new followers.  Killing the unfollow isn’t going to fix this.  Killing the proactive follow will.  My hope is that, assuming this is the real reason Twitter wants to kill it, Twitter will realize this and give freedom back to their users to continue maintaining their accounts.

As I said on the SocialToo blog – in the meantime, we’re in Twitter’s world and we’re subject to their rules, so until then I’ll do what they tell me.  Let’s hope they’re listening though.  SocialToo provides many more services than just this though, so I’m not worried – I am worried about our users however.

Are there use-cases I’m missing?  How were you using auto-unfollow?

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14 thoughts on “The Real Solution to Fix the "Twitter Game"

  1. I've been saying this for a while, Twitter as a method of communicating to unknown people, whatever your message is, has always been about numbers. Twitter even makes it so obvious by making Following/Follower (and NOW even Listed) right there in the prized upper right corner hot spot. The fact that Twitter wants to remove auto-unfollow but not auto-follow tells me one thing: Twitter still is ALL ABOUT NUMBERS and they want to to make it difficult to make your numbers smaller. The problem with removing one without the other is that it doesn't solve an issue, it just makes the technique a bit more cumbersome. If you want to solve the problem, stop making numbers such a visible and obvious piece of your system's UI.

    But here's a NewsFlash: ALL Social Media sites make Numbers an important element in the design (LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, Digg, FourSquare, you get the picture). Without numbers, there's a key human element that is missing: How many people are seeing this? Not seeing measurement discourages the drive to continue adding content intended to be seen by many. The ironic thing is, that number does not really translate to human eyeballs only the greater potential of eyeballs. The SUL is a good example of this as it's been proven that being on it doesn't add many more “true viewers”.

    Like

  2. If you are following only required accounts then there is no need to do any auto un-follow .

    So, killing auto-unfollow is having an advantage of providing auto-follow flexibility while preventing spammers.

    Like

  3. Your article comes at an interesting time as I was just looking at a service that can follow and un-follow people automatically based on various keywords that are pulled from a Twitter account bio. A friend has been experimenting with it and in our rather in-depth discussion I concluded (at least partially) that the service would be a good thing to try. But if Twitter has killed the auto-unfollow then this service is now moot.

    To me being able to unfollow someone that is not following you may be important to growing your numbers – and as we know, numbers ARE important – but so is the quality of the followers. It's a pain to go through one follower at a time to unfollow those that are not following me AND are not someone that I'm getting value from – in other words, getting rid of the 'dead' accounts that still show up on my 'following' list. If there were an easy way to do that I'd be all over it…

    Like

  4. Raja, that works for you, but if you're a brand such as, say, Britney
    Spears, it makes a huge difference following your fans. You should see the
    responses of people when someone they care about follows them back. The
    auto follow has its purpose.

    Like

  5. Tim, the auto unfollow isn't about growing numbers – it's about killing the
    proactive follow, which is exactly what you were trying to do. The
    proactive follow is about growing numbers as I mentioned in the article.

    As I said in a previous comment, the auto follow has its purpose. It gives
    a sense of sincerity and bring business to a brand if they can enable their
    users and followers to DM them (as I mentioned, @pcski got my business
    because they followed me back). With auto follow, auto unfollow is
    necessary though due to those that proactively follow and then unfollow,
    hoping you'll follow them back before they unfollow. The solution is to
    kill the proactive follow, not the auto-unfollow.

    Like

  6. I get cheesed off with the number of porn/dating spammers – twitter needs a way of auto checking links and blocking the “usual suspects”

    I also get peeved with the bots that pick out a word and follow – I was followed by some company selling arthritis treatment because I had a pain in my knee! Followed when I mentioned tea, coffee, art, photography…. It's getting tedious to keep blocking and or reporting all these bots. I could have 100 followers if I wanted, but only 10 to 20 would actually be likey to read my tweets. Mmmmm… I think I'm gonna go block/report a few more 😀

    Like

  7. Perhaps Twitter's intent is to create employment opportunities for individuals in countries with currency exchange rates that make hiring people there favorable. Do they have any idea how long it takes to manually find and unfollow people every day to deal with their follower limits?Before using Social Too to make room in my Twitter account I used FriendorFollow to manually find and unfollow those whose accounts were dormant or who weren't interacting with me. My time is too valuable for me to do that again.

    If Twitter doesn't want us to auto-unfollow then they need to change their limits. I don't churn followers; I only want to make room for those who want to interact with me by unfollowing those who aren't.

    Twitter users will always follow and unfollow based on their individual needs. Maybe today someone is interested in the information on growing their business I share but next week they are so busy they are cutting down on how many they follow so they unfollow me.

    I have another solution but most Twitter users are unlikely to figure it out (unless someone makes an entertaining viral video). Instead of unfollowing people whose tweets may be too much for you today start using Twitter lists to separate what you focus on. Have a list for friends you interact with regularly and another for business advice and a third for home improvement and so on.

    I use Twitter lists to give generous bloggers more of my attention, to quickly find specific information, and to keep in touch with different niches. I highly recommend it.

    Like

  8. Your use of lists I think is definitely the direction Twitter would prefer
    people move towards. While I think they understand most people don't
    auto-follow to churn numbers, they want to avoid allowing services that
    could allow that potential, so we'll abide by their rules.

    Like

  9. Perhaps Twitter's intent is to create employment opportunities for individuals in countries with currency exchange rates that make hiring people there favorable. Do they have any idea how long it takes to manually find and unfollow people every day to deal with their follower limits?Before using Social Too to make room in my Twitter account I used FriendorFollow to manually find and unfollow those whose accounts were dormant or who weren't interacting with me. My time is too valuable for me to do that again.

    If Twitter doesn't want us to auto-unfollow then they need to change their limits. I don't churn followers; I only want to make room for those who want to interact with me by unfollowing those who aren't.

    Twitter users will always follow and unfollow based on their individual needs. Maybe today someone is interested in the information on growing their business I share but next week they are so busy they are cutting down on how many they follow so they unfollow me.

    I have another solution but most Twitter users are unlikely to figure it out (unless someone makes an entertaining viral video). Instead of unfollowing people whose tweets may be too much for you today start using Twitter lists to separate what you focus on. Have a list for friends you interact with regularly and another for business advice and a third for home improvement and so on.

    I use Twitter lists to give generous bloggers more of my attention, to quickly find specific information, and to keep in touch with different niches. I highly recommend it.

    Like

  10. Your article comes at an interesting time as I was just looking at a service that can follow and un-follow people automatically based on various keywords that are pulled from a Twitter account bio. A friend has been experimenting with it and in our rather in-depth discussion I concluded (at least partially) that the service would be a good thing to try. But if Twitter has killed the auto-unfollow then this service is now moot.

    To me being able to unfollow someone that is not following you may be important to growing your numbers – and as we know, numbers ARE important – but so is the quality of the followers. It's a pain to go through one follower at a time to unfollow those that are not following me AND are not someone that I'm getting value from – in other words, getting rid of the 'dead' accounts that still show up on my 'following' list. If there were an easy way to do that I'd be all over it…

    Like

  11. I've been saying this for a while, Twitter as a method of communicating to unknown people, whatever your message is, has always been about numbers. Twitter even makes it so obvious by making Following/Follower (and NOW even Listed) right there in the prized upper right corner hot spot. The fact that Twitter wants to remove auto-unfollow but not auto-follow tells me one thing: Twitter still is ALL ABOUT NUMBERS and they want to to make it difficult to make your numbers smaller. The problem with removing one without the other is that it doesn't solve an issue, it just makes the technique a bit more cumbersome. If you want to solve the problem, stop making numbers such a visible and obvious piece of your system's UI.

    But here's a NewsFlash: ALL Social Media sites make Numbers an important element in the design (LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, Digg, FourSquare, you get the picture). Without numbers, there's a key human element that is missing: How many people are seeing this? Not seeing measurement discourages the drive to continue adding content intended to be seen by many. The ironic thing is, that number does not really translate to human eyeballs only the greater potential of eyeballs. The SUL is a good example of this as it's been proven that being on it doesn't add many more “true viewers”.

    Like

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