October 27, 2009

Hypocritical Mass: The Big Lie About Twitter

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Social Media Instructor

He was fine until he started to use Twitter... (illustration by Andre Koehn, from Wikimedia Commons)

He was fine until he started to use Twitter… (illustration by Andre Koehn, from Wikimedia Commons)

The belief that Twitter is more than just another communications platform continues to spread, kind of like swine flu for media geeks. And like the flu, it’s plunging victims into feverish hallucinations: “Twitter saved the Iranian protestors!” they cry, neglecting the fact that it, uh, didn’t. “Twitter made the Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck a sensation!” Yay, a fast-food truck makes money. “Twitter kept us updated about Balloon Boy in real time!”

Oh, waiter, next media fad, please!

OK, I confess, I’m being harsh here because, well, Twitter is so easy to pick on. How often do you get to rip on a company valued at $1 billion even though it doesn’t have a revenue model? If it weren’t for all the hype, I might actually love Twitter.

But there’s one aspect of Twitter culture — not Twitter itself, but the culture that has bubbled up around it — that bugs me on the same level as spam, lipsynching by millionaire popstars, and phony executive quotations in press releases (“I’m proud to announce that I’m pleased with the results confirming that we’re on the right track on a go forward basis”)…

Fake following.

"OMG, I think I'm being followed!"

“OMG, I think I’m being followed!”

Self-proclaimed social media experts tell us that social media is different from traditional mass media — even superior — because it’s about building relationships. And, yet, Twitter’s most successful users are currently “following” thousands of people. That’s freakin’ amazing. How can I not be impressed by this? I can barely follow a couple hundred. Seriously, being able to manage over 1,000 concurrent relationships should score you a recurring spot on “Heroes.”

For some people, Twitter has become one big hysterical numbers game, where it’s not the quality of interactions that matters, but the quantity of their followers. Apparently, he who dies with the most followers wins. And you know who the biggest perpetrators of this numbers game are?

The self-proclaimed social media experts.

Story Time: The Cocktail Party…

Recently, I wrote a blog post in which I compared social media to a cocktail party:

“People are there to socialize, to share thoughts and opinions and funny cat videos. They’re there to meet new people and to promote themselves. They’re not there to shop… If you crash a party and start shouting, ‘Hey, buddy, you want to buy this?’ you already know what kind of reaction you’ll get.”

A few weeks later, another blog also compared social media to a cocktail party, with the same bit about people conversing and sales pitches scaring them off. So, OK, it’s a big world, and coincidences happen. As I was later informed by the article’s writer, the cocktail party/social media analogy isn’t anything new, probably because it’s so obvious.

But here’s what got my spider-sense tingling: This writer wasn’t some stranger in the vast reaches of the blogosphere. He was someone I knew personally. I had guest-blogged for him earlier. And — you know what’s coming — he was one of my followers on Twitter, where I promote my blog.

I started salivating at the forthcoming debate. (Someone, get me a distemper shot.)

So I confronted him about it, and he denied even knowing about my post, least of all reading it. I believed him. He’s always been a nice guy, and does great work for charity. So I let that be and apologized for suspecting anything untoward. Then he said something that sent me off on a completely different mouth-foaming tangent: he didn’t even know he was following me on Twitter.

And this guy advises others on how to use social media for a living.

Call it Faux-cial Media….

“I follow 6,000+ people on Twitter,” he wrote me in an email. “Unless someone is talking directly to me or about me or I happen to be online at the very moment they tweet — the odds of me seeing anything are pretty remote. It’s just too much noise to sift through.”

This is the same guy who wrote in his cocktail party blog: “If you want to be a part of a community or build a community — you do it online just like you’d do it offline. You mix and mingle. You share what you have — interest, expertise, connections, and your attention.” Except in his case, his attention is divided over 6,000+ people that produce “just too much noise” for him.

I told him that didn’t sound like a cocktail party to me.

He responded, “But it’s a huge cocktail party. And as much as you’d like — you can’t talk to everyone, you can’t listen in on every conversation. You can mix and mingle the best you can, but you’re only going to scratch the surface.”

So basically, I said, your cocktail party is open to the public, and you don’t even know who’s in your house. You claim to “follow” your guests, but when someone later says, “Hey, you’re using the same ideas I told you at the party,” you reply, “Dude, I didn’t even know you were there.” How is that social media?

His response to this:

“I think it is an issue of volume…not disconnection. I can’t control who follows me on Twitter, other than to block those that are offensive. So yes, I guess it is open to the public, much like FriendFeed is. People subscribe to me…and create that base of listeners. I think it’s courteous to follow them back. I use twitter to share resources, to connect with friends and colleagues (and readers I have not met) in @messages and DM messages… I also use it to search for topics and follow up with people, usually in a DM conversation. But, to respond to or track what a few thousand people are saying….for me personally would be impossible. But…the bigger issue — how does someone manage the volume of noise/communication is a worthy one. Lots of people have kicked it around but I don’t think there is any one right answer. If you have it all figured out and manage it all without anything slipping through the cracks, I applaud you. I don’t have it that well tooled.”

Ah, but there is an easy and obvious way to manage it all: don’t follow 6,000+ people. Period.

Auto-following is NOT being “courteous”; it’s LYING about having an interest in others — particularly if you don’t have a clue who you’re following. And if you’re a social media advisor telling people that Twitter is all about paying attention and building relationships, following others without even knowing that you’re doing so is hypocrisy at its finest.

Again, he defended himself:

“If I only followed a couple hundred people (and if only a couple hundred followed me) I would not be able to contribute as significantly to projects… which have raised over $25K for charity.”

That’s a completely fair and noble point, and I commended him for using Twitter for a worthy cause. But just because one can make money or promote a cause on Twitter doesn’t make it “social”; it makes it just another marketing platform, as the spammers who infest Twitter would readily agree.

What’s more, occasionally communicating with people through direct messages isn’t “social”: that’s business as usual.

Web 2.0verrated…

The social media experts have concocted this myth that, until Web 2.0, businesses spent thousands of years in hermetically sealed cocoons, spitting out products blindly, not knowing or caring who consumed them, and ignoring messages from customers.

Veteran marketer Ron Shevlin — who I met and actually follow on Twitter — noted this about companies socially interacting with customers:

“…for years, firms have been ‘listening to customers’ (market research is hardly a new field), ‘offering their knowledge’ (plenty of salespeople in stores and in call centers have helped me make product decisions), and providing ‘interesting content’ (I’ve received excellent newsletters from Vanguard and Fidelity for years).”

Indeed, once upon a time, a business person would occasionally have to play golf with prospective clients. These days, I guess it’s OK just to occasionally DM them.

Despite all the bluster, Web 2.0 simply introduced different ways for businesses and customers to interact. Indeed, I would argue that social media has made communicating with corporations more difficult than ever since it’s created “just too much noise to sift through.” For example, I had to use old-fashioned email to get this social media expert’s attention, since he didn’t respond to my tweets.

Back in the days of yore, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Web didn’t exist, I used to contact corporations by snail mail and phone — and I almost always got responses. Now, thanks to social media, corporations have to either hire several (or even hundreds) of customer service/social media reps, or they have to avoid customer contact as much as possible. Even the Web 2.0 sites have to do this: quick, try to find a phone number or even an email address for customer service at Facebook or WordPress. Be sure to bring a snack — it might take a while.

Mass Movement…

Those most successful at using Twitter to promote themselves have learned that the “social” part is unwieldy. Because it’s impossible to track or respond to the tweets of thousands of people, the emerging “best practice” is to treat Twitter as a traditional mass medium. Got 6,000+ followers? No problem. Occasionally talk to a few to show that you’re paying attention. This will also serve to excite your other followers into thinking that they, too, might be able to interact with your holiness. But most of the time, issue one-way statements about your views, your relationships with other famous people, your special offers, and where your fans can check out your latest books and articles. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s called talk radio.

In other words, for all its social features, Twitter is simply the hottest thing to hit broadcasting since Howard Stern.

Now, let’s be honest here: using Twitter as a broadcasting tool is perfectly cool if it serves your business goals or raises awareness of a worthy cause. Who says you have to be social on social media? Oh, right, the social media experts do…

I contend that the word “follow” has lost all meaning except to new Twitter users, and that “auto-following” is an oxymoron that’s worse than not following at all — it’s the big lie practiced by some of Twitter’s biggest users. The Twitter consultants can write all the didactic articles they want on how to use social media properly, but if they don’t even know who they themselves are following, they’re no different from a multinational bank, government bureaucracy, or other institution that treats its customers as numbers. Such cold impersonal treatment is unfortunate but expected from a giant corporation; it’s abhorrent when it comes from a social media advisor.

So beware of any social media expert who claims to follow thousands of people. And if your social media consultant has his Twitter account set on auto-follow, it’s time to get a new consultant. As much as they claim to be on the cutting edge of communications, they’re just traditional marketers feeding you a bunch of lines, 140 characters at a time.

Update 7/8/2013: Twitter FINALLY gets rid of the auto-follow function.

Related Articles:
Words of, uh, Wisdom: How to Score More Twitter Followers
Not Weird Science: Social Media in One Word
The Authenticity Movement: A Totally Bogus Journey

 

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

24 Responses

  1. I agree with Rob that businesses have been to some extent communicating with customers and listening etc, but perhaps not as directly.
    Twitter is a new way to do an old thing – communicate.
    Personally I can only follow about a hundred people who aren’t too vocal. If I get an advert for any product which is not something they personally promote then it makes my task easier when I block or unfollow them.
    My task is to engage/observe and maybe get to know interesting people. My idea of interesting people is those who push the boundaries and challenge mine.
    I am also interested in insight into what my fellow humans are doing and what they care about, particularly the interesting ones. I like to gain insight into different cultures too.
    Will I use twitter to make new friends and build a network? Yes.
    The difference between facebook (which I rarely if ever use) and twitter (which I use everyday) is that it is much easier to get to meet or at least communicate with someone who you might otherwise have never known existed.
    It could give some insight into people you might like to know or your competitors. LinkedIn is another networking tool which has tried to become more of a communication tool, but somehow it seems a more serious and business-like place and ‘networking’ there is a far more serious issue. Recommendations and adding to or subtracting from networks has more consequences. Twitter is more easygoing – in my mind at least.

    Mass media or ‘Intimedia’
    As you suggest – it is mass media if you have a mass of followers, but it can be also ‘intimedia’ if you only follow or a followed by a few.
    Personally I go for the ‘intimedia’ approach and have sort of limited myself to 100 potential friends either way. If someone ‘follows’ me I’ll have a look at and monitor their stream and if something tickles my fancy I may follow them. That is something you can’t do on radio, except back when we had a community radio station in Bondi Beach but that is another story and it would probably be playing out using twitter too.

  2. I agree that a lot of what’s happening in social media right now, by a lot of traditional marketers, is nothing more than the same approach, just different platform.

    Anyone that calls his/herself an “expert” is by nature a social media douche bag (as we so affectionately call them).

    Now, with my class-act out of the bag, I’d like to say: we’re all figuring it out as we go. Social media IS changing the way people interact with marketers — and also the way they interact with one another. Clay Shirky puts this into perspective in his TED talk — fascinating video if you haven’t seen it.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

    And, as far as follower/following ratios, a number of articles have been written on the right levels. Every one seems to have a differing opinion.

  3. man! the image from Hero’s made me laugh so hard…well it was spew worthy ;)

  4. Honestly, I’m amazed that Twitter has continued the way it has. I was kind of expecting for it to fall apart months ago. Nope. It actually seems to be gaining strength. Kind of amazing.

    That said, you are absolutely right. It makes no sense to auto follow. I have over a thousand followers…and I only follow 42. You know why? Because I’m actually interested and want to know what those 42 people/organizations have to say. If people want to follow me, fine. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to follow them. I think that excuse about needing to follow everyone else in order raise money is silly. If I can get a thousand followers while only following 42 people, then he can get 6,000 followers by doing the same thing. It sounds a little too much like an excuse to me.

    Freddy’s Comment: You just gave me an idea: the measure of one’s true popularity on Twitter is not how many followers you have, but the ratio of your followers to those you’re following. In your case, Daneboe, it’s currently 27:1. That’s pretty impressive. Most spammers have an inverse ratio, since they follow hundreds with only a handful following them in return. I’m at 1.4:1, so I’m about as popular as dryer lint. Oh well, I’m working on it.

  5. Freddy, as you know, I’ve been following your words closely for the last little while now. And you’re right on the money with almost everything in this piece (as always). And yep, funnier than I even entertain thoughts of being myself.

    Now, a quick, shameless plug: maybe a few of your peeps will want to follow ME on twitter: The Answer Guy on Twitter

    Wait, I AM funny, I guess . . .

    With that out of the way, I think you’ve brought up one point that there’s just no good way to address. Your pal essentially rewrote (Twitter speak: RT ) your words and claimed the idea he blogged as his own. Yeah, in the old days that was quaintly referred to as “plagiarism”. Sadly, it isn’t anymore.

    Is that OK? No. But here’s the rub: while I hope he had the decency to credit you in SOME way (and links are the coin of this realm, eh?), the fact that he Spread the Freddy Love to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been so enlightened still carries a value, and (as a . . . . . . social media expert) I need to point out that EVENTUALLY the simple act of him posting words materially identical to yours will lead to you getting some new traffic.

    And on, and on, and on . . .

    This is a truly changed world. And the way to combat that change is to roll with it.

    Now make sure you credit me when you use my words !

    Jeff Yablon


    Freddy’s Comment: Jeff, I appreciate the props! That said, I still believe his proclamations of innocence. His words came across as sincere, so I will state definitively myself that he didn’t commit plagiarism. He really is a nice guy, and I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. He and I just have a strong difference of opinion concerning how to use social media.

    On that note, I think you’d give me a pretty good run for the money in the funny business. You may have missed your calling as a humorist…

  6. I just received another email from that social media guy defending his use of Twitter. It’s working for him, he says, and he can live with that.

    I responded by noting that Sarah Palin has achieved massive fame, fortune and a following with her tactics. I’m guessing that she can live with that, too.

    The ends justify the means, right?

    — Freddy

  7. Freddy – I’m still new to Twitter. I never understood the multi-thousand-follower deal, so your post helped a lot. It’s on par with those LinkedIn profiles with 500+ ‘connections’. Both are code for ‘look at me I’m a connector’. Gimme a break!

  8. BTW, love the AtomicTango handle. Makes me chuckle.

  9. Agree with all the comments on auto-following. I never thought I’d really find benefit from twitter, but the one are where the talk show analogy falls down is that it is a great medium for asking a question and getting many responses that are easy to sift through from people who are likely to be interested in the question (presumably, they are following you because they’re interested in what you tweet about). I think this is the real benefit of twitter.

    Freddy’s Comment: Isn’t that the same as a sports radio show host saying, “Who do you think will win the World Series? Call me now…” Like the radio show, asking questions on Twitter only works if you have enough followers. The tweet stream goes by so fast, the only people who will see your question are either rabid fans who follow your every tweet, or people who happen to be scanning Twitter at that very moment.

  10. This is EASILY the best I’m-not-buying-the-megahype-about-Twitter article I’ve seen. As an internet marketing professional, it’s necessary to understand social media for a client’s best interest, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s the be all and end all in business, not by a long shot.

    Ed Dale (twitter.com/Ed_Dale) is a social media guy who figured Twitter out the right way. He has over 25,000 followers yet he only follows 126. Auto-follow would go broke on him.

    The fact that 60% of new users stop using Twitter after two months tells a lot about their long term prospects. Facebook has over 300 million users and just became profitable. For Twitter, with about 30 million users and no revenue model, to be valued at $1 billion seems to be appropriate almost exactly 10 years after the dotcom boom and bust. I think some investor is going to lose his shorts on this one.

    Luke Brown
    Luke Brown Marketing

  11. Still not twittering. Still follow blogs and news via RSS, something less than 50, and it’s irritating sifting through that. Soon, others will realize Twitter is too irritating, too, for the same reasons and, like the stock market crash 10 years ago, this will all fall down quickly.

  12. You’re absolutely right on this. Twitter is really useful. It can be beneficial and can create a revenue stream. But auto-following your thousands upon thousands of followers is disingenuous.

    My follower/follow ratio is 3.8:1. Not huge, but not 1:1 or less. I view Twitter as a great communications medium, and I’ve met some great people as a result. But I don’t follow a person unless I’m interested in reading what they post.

    The people that follow thousands are probably broadcasting information, but not having lots of really meaningful conversations or interactions. And for me that’s the value of the service. It enables open interactions that anyone can jump in on.

  13. This is THE definitive Twitter post. The Emperor indeed hath no clothes….!

  14. Look at Jim Carrey, he has over 2K followers and follows 3 (one of them his wife and another of them one of his own movies or something). Now thats style!

  15. Interesting post. Expresses the sentiment many share.

    The social media “cocktail” metaphor has been making the rounds for a while. Last month, while visiting friends in the UK (first met on Twitter, then in person 3,800 miles away from my home), I heard them using it (heard it in three places: Exeter & London, England, and Cardiff, Wales).

    I heard it twice in one day at a conference in London. The guy who used it in the morning was upset at the guy who used it in the afternoon because he thought the afternoon guy “borrowed” the metaphor from the morning speech.

    I think one of the first times Seth Godin used the metaphor is in this December 17, 2008 post: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/12/brands-social-c.html

    Here’s a video from Open Forum, posted on YouTube April 18, 2009, where Godin again talks about social media and the cocktail party. Good stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0h0LlCu8Ks

    Earlier this year our real-life friends from MarketingProfs mentioned the metaphor as well: May 22, 2009: http://www.marketingprofs.com/short-articles/1055/be-professional-act-like-its-a-cocktail-party

    Thank you for leaving the door of acceptability open for folks who are “following thousands” if that fits their purposes.

    You are probably quite right in highlighting the social blight of discussing size. When it comes to relationships, size doesn’t matter and ought not be discussed in public.

  16. I don’t think it is a question of follower/-ing ratio. It is rather a question of noise ratio. How much noise do you have to go through to get something you find interesting?

    Interesting and smart people tweet about beeing stuck on train in Germany. They forget there is a “slight” difference between life-streaming and an interesting opinion. To follow 1 or 6000 today on twitter is equally uninteresting in the long run – too much noise in both cases.

    Lifestreaming is what clogs twitter. On the other hand, the same thing on Facebook is pure pleasure – because they are my friends. That is media for you. Opinion is one thing, chatting another.

  17. Great post – to tell the truth – I haven’t figured out Twitter yet – glad I’m not alone in my doubts

    Freddy’s Comment: Thanks, Jesus. Looking at its business model, Twitter hasn’t figured out Twitter yet.

  18. Reading Atomic Tango is like listening to Wanda Jackson sing Riot In Cell Block No. 9– there’s this kind of joyful mayhem. Very satisfying!!

    Freddy’s Comment: Thank you, sire! Joyful mayhem… maybe I should’ve named my agency that…

  19. God finally someone who doesn’t believe the twitter crap. I hate twitter to death; I never use that crap EVER. The reason I don’t like twitter is for all the reasons stated above and the fact that it’s not a one on one interaction like Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s essentially a platform for “leaders” to get a following. It’s passive media; it’s not meant for the average person to tweet a lot. It’s really great for corporations, large organizations or celebrities to use it so that people can constantly follow up on them (although I don’t now why you’re so obsessed with them, especially celebrities). Everything else, pretty much sucks imo. I can’t interact with other people; the only use i’ve found for twitter is looking at Conan or Colbert’s random jokes on there. There’s no interaction between me and other twitter users. Why tweet when you can just use facebook or just look up news online?….

  20. Have you ever stopped to read the ‘tweets’ posted on your Twitter home page? Whenever I do, I feel like an alien visiting a planet where, although the inhabitants speak English, what they say is not only complete gibberish, but also not (directed at or) intended for me, personally. Which is a bit like receiving an envelope addressed to oneself, opening it, and finding one is inadvertently reading someone else’s private mail! So much for ‘personal contact and chatting with friends*’ (*who don’t know you, never have known you, and never will know you).
    And as such what I find fascinating about ‘social networking sites’ is that, the owners of these sites, have millions of people paying to work for them (in terms of time and Internet connection costs, etc.) while they rake in millions in advertising revenue, and pay their supporters and erstwhile, hard-working staff, nothing! So maybe ‘social networking’ ought to be more aptly called: ‘slave working’ because that, in reality, is what it is. (And, when one stops and thinks about it, it’s quite amazing to discover just how many site-owners have succeeded in getting Internet-users to ‘work for them,’ for absolutely nothing, and without even realizing it). Small wonder most Internet users are unnaturally ‘exhausted’ at the end of the day?
    PS: maybe it’s time site-owners PAID Internet-users to visit their sites? Now that would be a win-win turn-up for the books!

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