Last year, my Twitter account was suspended for a week. Yes, this gives me a certain bias in writing about why this action is stupid, but bear with me.
Twitter claims they suspend users who engage in behavior that degrades the overall Twitter experience for everyone. My first issue with this idea is that Twitter only allows 140 characters at a time, so “degrading” it any further is kind of hard to do. 🙂
My second issue is that they allow things that actually do degrade it. For example, when I follow someone, they can send me an auto-direct message (DM). I’m following over 23,000 people now and and have probably received over 5,000 of these DMs that were impersonal spam. I can only block all DMs, preventing DMs I want to receive. I used to look through DMs for the latter, an act which degrades my experience, but now I ignore all DMs, so don’t be surprised if you send me one and never get a response – which likely degrades your experience.
My third issue is that they say those who follow and unfollow many people (i.e., follower churn) are degrading Twitter. This is BS. I receive notification when someone follows me (unless I turn that off), but I have no idea when someone unfollows me – unless I use a third party app to find out. If I have to go out of my way like that, how does it hurt my or anyone else’s experience on Twitter itself? It doesn’t.
I’ll Follow You If You Follow Me (IFYIYFM)
Why am I following so many people? Because many people practice reciprocal follow backs, so much so that Twitter blocked the ability to auto-followback sometime in 2013. Many people follow me just so I’ll follow them back. I initially refused this and wondered why I kept gaining, then losing followers. I had around 50 at the time, then 51, then 49, then 52, then 50, then 53, then 52, etc.
I wondered if I was posting things that attracted some people but offended others or something, but no, it was IFYIYFM, except I wasn’t doing my part of it. Those people weren’t “really” following me, so I thought “no loss”.
Why do IFYIYFM? Because having tens of thousands of followers looks good. It’s all appearance. It is shallow. You could condemn that, but we’re talking about a service that is inherently shallow because few people can say anything meaningful in 140 characters or less, so being shallow on Twitter comes with the territory.
People ignorant of IFYIYFM can’t tell that’s how you have so many followers. You have the appearance of credibility you sought. However, you can tell, because anyone with nearly the same number of followers as they are following is doing this. For example, I’m currently following roughly 23,000 people and have nearly the same number of followers. I started doing IFYIYFM when I had 50 genuine followers and decided to see if IFYIYFM worked. It does. Given that only some Twitter users are aware of this, I’ve achieved (for everyone else) the appearance I sought.
Is there more to it than appearance? In theory, yes. That’s 23,000 people who could potentially see my tweets, including ones of a promotional nature, whether for this blog or a free mp3, for example. Visibility creates brand awareness. It’s even better if someone actually clicks on a blog or mp3 and gets more interested in my other, similar items. Or if they retweet me to their followers, which could be another few thousand. Whether that actually works is another subject.
Why I Was Suspended
So why was I suspended? Because not everyone does IFYIYFM. The result is that I sometimes accumulated thousands of people who weren’t following me back. I wanted to unfollow them. Why? Revenge? Etiquette? No. Because Twitter has imposed limits on how many people you can follow. That limit is about 10%. Let’s look at an example:
If I’m following exactly 10,000 people and have 10,000 followers, I can only follow another 1,000. When I try to follow Mr. 1001, Twitter tells me I’ve reached my follow limit and makes the action fail. To follow more people, I have to unfollow people. Who do you think I’m going to unfollow? People who haven’t reciprocated IFYIYFM. Why? Because I’m not benefiting from following them. You’d be right to say that this “benefit” is not what Twitter is for, but this is how many people use Twitter, which means this is also what Twitter is for. Just because Twitter didn’t intend it to be used that way doesn’t mean it’s an invalid use of it. That’s like saying I can only use a screwdriver on screws when I can also use it to pry open a paint can lid, and if I try to do the latter, my screwdriver is taken away from me. Twitter may have created the tool, but other people are using it.
I gave people a while to reciprocate IFYIYFM, but if they didn’t do it, I eventually unfollowed them (using a third party tool that shows me that sort of info, because Twitter won’t so that people cannot manage their followers; this is sort of anti-user). One day, I unfollowed 600-700 of them, then made the apparent mistake of following several hundred right after, triggering Twitter’s anti-churn algorithm. They auto-suspended my account.
What Suspension Means
Suspension meant that I could not follow or unfollow people, but the real issue was that I could no longer use Twitter. No tweeting. More amazing was that I could not see any tweets by all the people I followed. I was effectively banned from the site altogether. Why would Twitter stop people from using the service as intended (tweeting and seeing tweets)? Shouldn’t they stop you from using their service in ways they did not intend, if they’re going to do anything at all? They can easily institute an unfollow limit just like they did with the follow limit. They have admitted an unfollow/follow limit exists but not what it is, meaning they let you exceed that unknown limit and then punish you instead of telling you what it is so you can avoid it. This is anti-user.
IFYIYFM is not Twitter abuse when it’s become etiquette to follow people back, you slowly amass people who aren’t doing it, and you unfollow many of them on the same day you follow more people. That’s fairly acceptable use. Instead, Twitter determines you’re a spammer and suspends you. That’s anti-user. They actually say that trying to gain followers is against their terms of service, which leads me to believe they genuinely don’t understand their own tool or how it is used, even by non-spammers. Just gaining followers doesn’t mean you’re spamming them.
What Twitter is For
There appears to be a disagreement between Twitter and its users regarding what Twitter is for. Twitter designed it with certain things in mind (related to tweeting), and yet “the world” has found other uses for it (such as self-promotion). Twitter doesn’t like those other uses and has tried to clamp down on them. Who is right? Millions of users or the software creator?
Some will say that users are in Twitter’s house and must abide by its rules (terms of agreement), and to some extent, they are correct. But a social construct has arisen on Twitter over the years, that following back is etiquette, and failure to do it warrants being unfollowed. This social expectation is not under Twitter’s control, whether they like it or not.
After Twitter released me from Twitter jail, I stopped pursuing followers, not from fear of punishment, but from boredom with doing so and feeling it’s largely pointless. More on that another time, but what are your experiences with followers, churn, and jail?