The Twitter Follow Racket

I’ve been a devoted Twitter user for more than a year now, and I love the service. But I’m increasingly baffled by the way it’s used, the hype surrounding it, and, especially, by the status games it seems to generate.

For starters, Twitter has been embraced by the conservative activist crowd. Yet I’m uncertain that Twitter will ever prove an efficacious tool for political activism. In particular, I find the obsession with Twitter gimmicks like hashtags vexing. None of it seems terribly useful to me: Twitter-politics obsessives typically seem to inspire little more than added twittering about politics. It’s true that the right made it to this space first; but exploring new territory is only useful if you find and exploit valuable resources. People using Twitter for political activism are indeed doing something — but are they doing something useful? What does Twitter actually add?

Twitter enthusiasts seem to think of the service as an organizing and rallying tool, hence the massive build up of following and follower lists. These days, it’s not uncommon to find folks with several thousand followers. In theory, that makes some sense, for Twitter can be used as a reasonably effective broadcast too. The weird part, though, is that many of those people will also be following two or three thousand others.

In fact, for many, the follow/following numbers are relatively close, as people return follow anyone who follows them. The Twitter-world’s status seems to be tied to number of followers, so this makes sense. (It’s also become a more or less standard part of Twitter etiquette.) But it also seems like something of a scam, as it allows everyone to inflate their own follow numbers in a way that actually reduces the impact of the individual tweets.

At a certain volume — say, once you start following a few hundred other regular tweeters, certainly when you hit a thousand — there’s simply no way to keep up with more than a tiny fraction of the tweets you receive. High following numbers dilute the impact of individual tweets, so the more people who join in to the I’ll-follow-you-if-you-follow-me racket, the less any individual tweet is likely to be noted. Everyone theoretically gets more status this way, but I’m not sure it’s status that’s actually worth anything.

Indeed, it strikes me that Twitter is far more effective as a personalizing tool — something that can help shape a person or organization’s personality and public identity. Just as you can get to know something about a person through their blogging, you can get a real sense of someone through Twitter. Problem is, in order to do so, you need to be fairly attentive to their tweets; indeed, you typically need to read the majority of them. That’s unlikely to happen, though, if you’re following 2,500 other folks. Meanwhile, the circle of self-promotion continues.

It’s even more baffling when you see institutions setting up organizational accounts. The strategy for a lot of organizations on Twitter seems to be to set up an account, follow as many people as possible, hope to build up return follows, and then blast out a stream press-release style headlines with tinyurl links to your organization’s work. Of course, none of those people who’re being followed get any real value from their new follow: Whoever is managing the institutional account is likely some low-level communications assistant with his or her own Twitter account, and therefore doesn’t use the organizational login to read other people’s stuff. The accounts are deaf and blind, essentially; they can speak but can’t see or hear. At the same time, like-minded institutions all end up following each other, and no one reads any of it. But the follow counts go up! And hey, isn’t that what matters?