Twitter is the only social network which punishes you for following a person you’re interested in

In an offhand comment on his blog today, John Scalzi wrote: “Weird to think some of you [i.e. his blog readers] don’t follow me on Twitter, but there you go.”

Which interested me, since I am one of those people: I’m an avid reader of Scalzi’s blog, but I unfollowed him on Twitter several months ago.

And it was for a simple reason: I don’t follow anyone who isn’t following me back.

For a long time, I assumed that this was the policy of most authors, but I was talking about it to someone at AWP, and he seemed to think there was something shameful about this stance, so maybe not everyone acts this way.

But I think that the design of Twitter encourages my way of thinking. Whenever you look at a user, their number of followers is prominently displayed next to the number of people that they follow, which provides a very clear and intuitive glimpse of whether they are more of a listener or a broadcaster. If they’re the former, then they’re a consumer: a set of ears. But if they’re the latter, then they’re obviously a person whom people listen to.

Something like this mechanic is necessary, since Twitter needs a way to signal that someone is a spammer: people who accrued tens of thousands of followers by following tens of thousands of people. (Although another alternative would be to limit the total number of accounts that you’re allowed to follow.)

But it sets up a weird incentive for someone like me. Whenever I follow someone who isn’t following me back, I tip myself further into the “listener” and farther from the “broadcaster” category. Which doesn’t feel good. Twitter is the only social network in which your social status is reduced if you follow other peoples’ work.

In a way, Twitter is a zero-sum game. Every time you follow someone, you add to their social status and reduce your own.

A bigger person wouldn’t care how they were perceived: they would just go ahead and follow all the people whose tweets they enjoy. And I think that is what most people do. I mean, not everybody can maintain a positive followed-by to follower-of ratio (although, since most Twitter accounts are pretty passive or defunct, it is possible for a majority of active twitter accounts to maintain a positive ratio).

But that’s not me. I do care. So my policy is to not follow anyone who doesn’t follow me. Which is not to say that someone like John Scalzi ought to follow my Twitter account. He has tens of thousands of followers, and he obviously needs to limit his feed to the ones that he actually wants to talk to. But my policy remains. While I would not be uninterested in reading Scalzi’s tweets, I refuse to sacrifice even an iota of my social status in order to gain the privilege of doing so.


Comments (



  1. joeiriarte

    I keep running into that holier-than-thou-I-don’t-care-who-follows-me-back line, and I’m closer to your camp. I do care. Which makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite, because I don’t automatically follow back everyone who follows me. I glance at their feed to see how engaged they are with other people, because why would I willingly subject myself to a feed that’s all commercials?

    But when I follow someone and they don’t follow me back . . . I dunno, I feel kind of insulted. Like by following you (hypothetical “you,” not you “you”) I’ve declared that I find your thoughts interesting, and by not following me back you’ve declared that I, conversely, have nothing to say that’s of interest to you.

    I actually don’t mind this from the few “famous” people I do follow on Twitter–Scalzi, Gaiman, and so forth. I know I’m going to get entertaining and interesting stuff from their feed, and to them I’m just one of the nameless throng. But when someone isn’t higher profile than I am, just some other schmuck with a couple of sales, it’s hard not to see it as an insult.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I am prone to feeling that way too, but I do try and tell myself that not everyone sees or uses Twitter in the same way. Some people’s accounts are mostly inactive. Some people go months between adding new followers. Some people only use it to talk to people that they know in real life. Also…I myself frequently don’t follow people who follow me, so, you know, glass houses.

  2. minann

    I like this post i agree,if someone follows you follow them back in ratio your helping each other.but i also think that everyone can have a twitter,but i also think twitter should be mainly for businesses,and celeberties and ppl with blog sites and media news. Just because the way its set up and designed for and leave the myspace and facebook and others for the average social person and business.again the way twitter is made you will get lets say teenagers who will follow and there on there just for fun they follow but unfollow,or wont because they dont relate sobto keep up with follows just follow and dnt worry about it my oppinion.or maybe twitter should change from callling it follow to just friend i think that makes a diffrence the way it precieved.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, I think that’s kind of how things lean, but I also feel like ordinary people need a reason to be on there. No one is going to log onto a social network just so they can communicate with businesses and celebrities, right?

      1. minann

        Yea your right ,good point.but if you follow and dont get a follow back i dont think it should be offensive

  3. Tommy Wallach

    I’ve discussed this at length with my friend who works in social media (ran the digital side of the first Obama campaign), and he says it’s a false marker (he also has 50,000 followers and follows 40,000 people). At the level of not being a serious Twitter presence (i.e. fewer than 25,000 followers), there’s really no cache at all, no matter what your ratio. Nobody’s going to be impressed with a higher follower to follow ratio unless you actually have a real presence (i.e. being at a 300 to 500 ratio, or an 800 to 600 ratio simply doesn’t give you any cache). It seems to me that having a sort of “punishment” attitude towards Twitter is a silly way to think of the medium, as if we’re each doing a favor for every person we follow and vice-versa. Unless someone follows three times as many people as they have followers, ratio is fairly immaterial to me. If anything, I feel much more annoyed with people who ONLY have followers and not vice-versa, because it means they really do only see Twitter as an advertising medium. Of course, if you get “successful,” the ratio will flip for the simple reason that lots of people will follow you who you TRULY have no interest in following. But that’s so immaterial to the present moment, no?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hey, for me, a person who has 800/600 has less cache than a person who has 300/500, and, since I am a fairly typical product of my class and environment, I assume that at some significant percentage of people in the world think as I do.