…because that’s how I use twitter!

Sometime recently, I had a conversation with my friend @frl_sm1lla. We talked about twitter, and I happened to ask her how many followers she had. “300 to 400” was her reply. About three times as much as I, as I recognized. “But of course, I follow more than 600 people, and they follow me back”.


“How do you follow 600 people?”

“What do you mean? You just click on them, and then hit Follow” – “No, I mean, 600 people, everyone sending 5 tweets per day on average makes 3000 tweets per day. Let’s assume it’s a weekday and you can’t read at work, so even if you spent all the time you don’t spend sleeping or working on twitter, that would be like – reading more than 6 tweets per minute, one every eight seconds or so. How do you do that?”

“Well, of course, I don’t read all their crap. I just follow them. Me, I only read it when someone mentions me. But you can use lists or applications like tweetdeck if you really want to read what those people write…”

I looked at her in utter disbelief. My understanding of the phrase “to follow someone” had just received a painful shock, just like antisocial networks had hurt my understanding of “being friends” many years ago. Is twitter only a kind of childish “I follow you if you follow me so we can both brag about it” – or is it what I thought it was: a platform to both share and obtain interesting information?

Kinda-offical statements

Let’s first see what the bird itself has to say: on Twitter’s About page, you find the following:

“Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting.”

Ok, that looks like obtaining interesting information after all. The wikipedia page on the subject adds an interesting quote by Steven Johnson (from his 2009 Time article):

“As a social network, Twitter revolves around the principle of followers. When you choose to follow another Twitter user, that user’s tweets appear in reverse chronological order on your main Twitter page. If you follow 20 people, you’ll see a mix of tweets scrolling down the page: breakfast-cereal updates, interesting new links, music recommendations, even musings on the future of education.”

At first sight, exactly the same: it’s mainly about obtaining information. However, Johnson is also quick to point out two items. First of all, the importance of the concept of followers. And then, more shockingly, that it’s a social network.

So, a good idea at first, which turned into the childish concept because it was identified (or marketed) as a social network?

Just some numbers…

I’d like to give some numbers of followers vs. followed for some people from my “extended network“.

As an introduction, mind the following: if you assume everyone sends 5 tweets per day on average, and you assume that it takes 5 seconds on average to read a tweet (and look at any links it may contain, or decide to ignore it – I came up with that figure by own experience), then some dimensions:

  • following 50 people, you’d read 250 tweets per day, taking roughly 20 minutes.
  • following 600 people, it’s 3000/day, or more than 4 (!) hours.
  • for 6000 people: 30000/day, or 40 hours.
  • for 30000 people: 150000/day, or 200 hours.

(per day, that is).

Or putting it the other way round:

  • to read all of your 30k people’s tweets in a normal (8h) working day, you’d need to do read more than 5 tweets per second!
  • if you spend 30 minutes reading tweets every day, you can only follow around 60 people.

Ok, on to the numbers:

@mattstevensloop (Matt Stevens, musician): 7565 followers (“in”), 6291 following (“out”), receives a tweet every 3 seconds (“spt”). For every person he follows, he got 1.2 followers (“ratio”).

@headphonaught (Thomas Mathie, artist, blogger, christian): 1577 in, 1195 out, 14.5 spt, 1.32 ratio.

@frl_sm1lla (“Die 13”, political activist, artist): 380 in, 650 out, 26.6 spt, 0.58 ratio.

@imogenheap (Imogen Heap, singer/composer/musician, BIG!): 1534886 in, 32601 out, 0.52 spt, 47.08 ratio.

@zoecello (Zoe Keating, “cello, computers and pancakes”): 1335265 in, 931 out, 18.6 spt, 1434.23 ratio.

(for comparison: my figures are 159 in, 58 out, 298 spt, 2.74 ratio).

A brief analysis

follower/following numbers from above

There’s a graphical display of the follower/following examples from above on the side (note the logarithmic scaling!). A few things can be found here:

  • First of all, for the “normal” people in our example (here, “normal” being below one million followers), the ratio is “around one”.
  • Nearly nobody seems to truly follow the people they follow. Meaning reading what they have to say, and if appropriate, react to it. Following has turned into the same abstruse folly that “being friends” has been turned into by antisocial networks.
  • If you want to truly get information from twitter and at the same time want to stick with the “you need to follow a large number of people to be followed by a large number of people” logic, you do need to use tweetdeck, or lists, or whatever.
  • As a funny sidenote on that: I was completely confused when I found a tool that allowed you to kick people from your following list who did not follow you. What is the logic in that? Little did I know…

The consequences for me?

In brief: there are none. Of course, I could succumb to the pressure of “to be cool you need a lot of followers” and the chain of consequences that then I’d need to follow everyone, and use tweetdeck and lists, or stop using twitter as an information source completely.

Or I could decide that I am for one happy with the few people who decide that what I have to say is interesting enough for them that they follow me for real in some way; either via normal “following” (perhaps enhanced by some fancy tool), or via lists, or by whichever other way. And on the other hand use my own timeline for what it’s meant: to get interesting info from the people I consciously decided to follow because they have something to say.

So if you follow me, and wonder why I don’t follow you back: don’t take it personally. Perhaps I’m not that much interested in your tweets that I need them on a daily basis. Perhaps I simply hadn’t become aware of you. It’s nothing agains you, or your art or whatever…it’s just because that’s how I use twitter!


3 thoughts on “…because that’s how I use twitter!

  1. Interesting analysis. I do, as you obviously do, choose carefully who I follow. This is so my main stream is still useful. But I do use lists and Hootsuite to filter the information. Those prolific tweeters that don’t interact usually wind up on a list, so I can still get the info when I’m in the mood for that category of information.

    Counting pure number of followers doesn’t measure your success or failure on any social network. What kind of interactions are you having? Are you getting the information you need? Do people act on your information (for those of us who create content)? These are more important questions than sheer volume of followers. If you like or have use of one of my tweets, and you retweet, then your 100 followers also see my information. It’s a win for both of us.

    However, I do enjoy your particular twitter feed. I find you quirky and fun, just what I like on my primary follower list. So dry sometimes I need to rehydrate after reading. Also you’re an integral part of the community I follow. Before I followed you , part of the conversation was gone.

    Again, though, I really like your analysis. I will be retweeting your link!

  2. I don’t know who you are, I followed a retweet by a friend whose tweets I follow. :p There’s a third alternative that’s so staggeringly obvious I can’t quite fathom that you haven’t included it here. In real life, there are a lot of people I have vaguely good opinions of that I’m happy to listen to when they’re around, but I don’t have Edward Cullen-like obsessions about them. I don’t need to hear every word they utter, and I don’t go out of my way to stalk them so I can be sure not to miss a single pearl of wisdom that drops from their lips. Likewise, I don’t read every tweet posted by the people I follow on Twitter, but there’s nothing dishonest about the claim that I’m “following” them: When I’m online, I’ve got Tweetdeck turned on and I see and read every tweet from every person I follow in a pop-up window that appears where I can read it even as I’m focusing on some other application. When I’m offline, I make no attempt to go back and read what I missed. I’ll go back and read missed blog posts or facebook updates, but to me Twitter is more real-time. As for following back, when somebody new follows me I take a look at their last page full of posts and evaluate the signal to noise ratio. If it’s mostly plugs for themselves or links, I don’t bother, but if it seems like a real person who appeared genuinely interested in me and not just trying to use me, then yeah, I return the interest.

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