Communication comes in many forms, not all of them verbal and many of them under-valued… If eBay has taught us anything, it is that what one person considers waste can be another person’s prized possession.

At the weekend, another contact on Twitter announced plans to unfollow everyone and adopt the ‘lists only’ method of Twitter engagement. I tweeted my thoughts and a bit of a reaction ensued. People told me I was wrong. It proved impossible to clarify the original thought in 140 chars, hence this post.


First up, this was not a comment about using lists to filter the Twitterverse. If you are prolific user of Twitter and follow the tweets of thousands of accounts, it’s probably the only way to have any level of engagement beyond responding to tweets that you are mentioned in. Lists can be a useful way of filtering your Twitter timeline. Personally, I still prefer the serendipity of periodically scanning my timeline as a single stream. But I am not a prolific user of social media.

The comment above was not about the effectiveness of lists.

The comment was about the decision to go to ‘Following = 0’. Whilst choosing to use the word ‘selfish’ may seem harsh, it was in terms of the true meaning of the word and not meant as a personal slight. Selfish simply means putting your own interests ahead of all others. We are all (and should be) selfish to some degree. It’s a necessary survival trait.

Deciding to unfollow everyone on Twitter is selfish because it assumes there is no value to others in your original decision to follow them. Or that you choose to dismiss any value it might have to others because it no longer holds any value for you. That’s being selfish. If you have a negative reaction to that last sentence, it’s the feeling of your ego being bruised. Happens to me too.

If people didn’t appreciate being followed, we wouldn’t have so many of those automated tweets telling you how many follows and unfollows they received during the past week. Personally, I find all automated tweet services irritating and cannot abide influencer ranks but they must offer some value to those who use them so it would be selfish of me to dismiss them. (Now a list that automatically filters out all automatic tweets… that’s a list I may create…)

Imagine if overnight every account changed to:

Following = 0  |  Followers = 0  | Listed = NNN

where NNN = some number between zero and a lot

What does Twitter become? A list-based messaging channel. It risks losing the dynamic of a network.

For the majority of real accounts on Twitter – i.e. those with an individual human being behind them – the act of being followed has two benefits

1) It is a signal that what you are saying or sharing is being noticed by somebody somewhere in our vast global online world.

2) If you follow back, it signals that you may share a mutual interest and/or respect. Not always, but definitely sometimes

Being added to a list just means that you have been categorised into a silo. It’s a very different signal.

When somebody doesn’t follow me but adds me to their ‘Internet of Things’ list, it tells me that they are interested in tweets about the Internet of Things (IoT). They have no interest in anything else I say or what I do – I am a non-entity, just an account that occasionally ends tweets with #IoT.

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. There’s no right or wrong here. I was just trying to highlight that choosing to not follow anyone and adopt a ‘list-only’ policy changes the dynamic of the network because it is not the default behaviour of the platform and gives out different signals.

I’ve been lucky to have met some great people through Twitter. I’m not sure that would have happened without the Follower/Following dynamic. Yes it has flaws. Yes it can be borked. Yes maybe it is time to move on to a different mechanism. Yes it’s great that people are experimenting with new ways to use Twitter and sharing their experiences. Yes, I might even try lists again myself for managing the consumption of Tweets.

What was slightly disappointing trying to share this feeling on Twitter was that there was virtually no conversation, just reaction. Most responses were to tell me how wrong I was, how ‘unfollowing’ led to better, deeper, more engaged dialogues. Some focused on the wonders of lists for improving their ability to manage the Twitterverse, which was missing the point entirely (or, rather, proving it). Fans weighed in to defend the unfollowers. Few people queried whether or not the act of unfollowing was a selfish act that could have a negative effect on those being unfollowed. Q.E.D.

There’s an old saying in the horse world:

Horses can’t talk but that doesn’t stop them from communicating

So many of the signals we give out are non-verbal and their effects unaccounted for. When we decide to change a behaviour, it doesn’t hurt to consider the effect that change may have on others as well as ourselves.

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Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Being listed without being followed feels like being part of another marketing database. It’s fine with me, but I only include people in my lists that I want to follow. I have a very special private list that is the one I see during the day. No topic, just the people whose random thoughts I enjoy. I keep that list to about 200 members and I change it regularly. You’re on that list 🙂

  2. I’m pleased I’m on that list 🙂

    Until now, I’ve pretty much kept my ‘Following’ list intentionally small to try and keep to a single timeline. But the rise in automated tweets, promoted tweets plus the desire to follow more accounts for different reasons, and sometimes missing out on a good conversation, is making the move to lists increasingly likely. But I won’t go down the ‘Unfollowing’ route because I wouldn’t want the reverse to also happen and find that everyone unfollowed me. Being on a list will likely include a follow unless it’s just a news bot. Marketing database is a good analogy. Without the followers/following, Twitter would feel sterile. Sure it’s a bit of a mess, but that makes it all the more lifelike 🙂

  3. Hi Sharon, what a terrific blog post and follow-up write-up to our conversation on Twitter about the topic of unfollowing. Thanks much for putting it together and for sharing it along over here in your blog. Loved that you moved the topic here where we can converse further along without the silliness of the 140 characters [Yes, I’m one of those very very few folks who just can’t wait for that 10k character limit to kick in in a matter of weeks. Finally, Twitter will grow up and be able to play with the big boys and girls] and get some ‘proper’ dialogue going while we wait for that change to take place.

    I have gone through the blog post a couple of times, while I was making a number of mental notes on things I wanted to add my ¢2 to, as being the ‘originator’ of the Unfollowing initiative and active participant on the Twitter conversation you mentioned above as well (For folks interested in the topic I wrote about it over here > #longreads), and instead of creating another blog entry I decided to add them over here as comments. Here we go …

    RE: ‘People told me I was wrong’ < I got into the conversation a bit later than usual, as I had just returned from my winter vacation, and while catching up with all of the tweets and Mentions I didn’t perceive it as people telling you you were wrong. Quite the opposite. I think it was more of an exchange about how Social Networking Analysis works and how plenty of its principles could be applied to Twitter to make better sense of it.

    I know Valdis Krebs (@orgnet) for over a decade and have learned TONS about SNA from him, over the years, and plenty of the arguments he shares about why the following / follower gimmick is broken is pretty accurate and not just applicable to Twitter, but to every other social networking tool that follows similar method of ‘measuring’. I think what Valdis was trying to demonstrate (and that can be seen from the tweet exchange itself) is how as effective as we think those capabilities are they are fundamentally flawed. If anything, it’s not indicating you were wrong or anything, but that the capabilities themselves are not good enough to help us understand how networks truly operate with this social tools. I particularly found the conversation fascinating while going through it, AFTER you folks had it, and learned from it quite a lot as well as a result, so many thanks for that! Nothing with you being wrong, for sure, but just having another valuable opinion to add into the mix, which I really appreciated myself after I got exposed to it upon my return into the social grid.

    RE: ‘Whilst choosing to use the word ‘selfish’ may seem harsh, […] Selfish simply means putting your own interests ahead of all others. ’ < This totally caught me by surprise on the original tweet you shared across, because after having embarked on that particular initiative myself and follow it as an experiment for a good few months I have experienced everything BUT selfishness on how I use Twitter and, I dare say, it killed the little selfishness I had before when just focusing on the timeline and following people. I think that original trend of thought was the one that triggered the rest of the discourse and don’t think I was the only one being surprised by it.

    The thing is that, for me, it’s helped me focus plenty more more on who I’m REALLY interested in working together with, cooperating or learning more from. It’s helped me understand it’s no longer about me, but about being part of a group of people who share similar interests to me and therefore can spark different conversations, like the one we’re having. Before it was just a mindless broadcasting of messages with little chance of interactions coming from all over the place because everyone thought, me included!, that with our following we immediately have got an audience and can do everything we want with it, when perhaps we shouldn’t. Following implies ‘you are there’, not following and using lists implies you need to show up and ‘be there’ and making yourself visible is participating in conversations others have started with their tweets. I wrote about this, but using Lists has helped me understand it’s no longer all about my own content or what I find out there, but what I feel would be helpful to contribute into the overall conversation of the lists I have built up.

    Naming the Lists is very important, too! I agree with you on that regard as well completely. That’s why the 3 public lists I have do have specific names that should help everyone understand why they are included where they are. Using a list like ‘IoT’ would be something I wouldn’t use either for the very same reasons you mentioned above, and why I gave it plenty of thought to eventually find better options for the public lists I created in the first place.

    RE: ‘[…] it assumes there is no value to others in your original decision to follow them. Or that you choose to dismiss any value it might have to others because it no longer holds any value for you. ’ < Oh, but there is value in there if you decide to unfollow people and use lists. This is one of my favourite capabilities and that’s the one where I just can’t possibly share my timeline of tweets from people I follow but I CAN share the list of people I’m hooked up with and people can subscribe to it, exposing completely all three of those lists, and sharing the goods with everyone else. The fact that several dozens have already subscribed to them as we speak is something I very much appreciate as it proves those lists are helpful to them as well. Also, remember that every time you add someone into a public list they also get a notification about it and if you take time & care to add a proper naming for the list and a description of the same list it can prove a rather powerful method of influencing (others). Mainly, because their value is validated, if I can say that, by third parties, i.e. their networks, not just themselves, as individuals with their following.

    RE: ‘If people didn’t appreciate being followed, we wouldn’t have so many of those automated tweets telling you how many follows and unfollows they received during the past week’ < I think I’m going to bite on this one and state that somehow I have always felt when people do that aren’t they just sharing a lovely bait with those #s telling people how cool they are with so many new follows? Maybe you should follow me as well. Come on, join them! And yet we see hundreds, if not thousands, of other tweets flying by from people who really don’t like, or can’t care less, about such self-promotion. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. I have taught my brain to ignore and move on when I see those tweets because in most cases I already have them in my lists 🙂

    RE: ‘What does Twitter become? A list-based messaging channel. It risks losing the dynamic of a network.’ < Hummm, I’d venture to state it would be rather the opposite! I suspect Twitter will become just such a wonderful and self-empowering tool that will take the whole notion of social networking tools into a whole new level. Look into it from the perspective of blogs. Or wikis for that matter. People gather around them to participate in conversations, to learn, to share, to collaborate, to eventually get something out of it in mutual accord, and as a result we all become better. To me, Twitter will jump the shark the moment it drops followers / following and we will all be much better off and when they remove the 140 character limit … Whoahhh!! We had to wait nearly 10 years for that transformation, but what a transformation, indeed! I can’t wait…

    RE: ‘1) It is a signal that what you are saying or sharing is being noticed by somebody somewhere in our vast global online world. < Same thing happens with a public list, as I mentioned above, except that everyone else will now have the opportunity to know why by subscribing to the list. You can’t subscribe to my timeline, but I can subscribe to your public lists. If anything, the signal is stronger in terms of potential influence.

    RE: ‘2) If you follow back, it signals that you may share a mutual interest and/or respect. Not always, but definitely sometimes’ < Same effect using Lists when you start seeing people you have added into lists adding you into theirs and see how they perceive you with those List names and descriptions of the list(s). The respect is complete when you open up DMs so everyone in Twitter can DM you accordingly whether they follow you or not. A whole new opportunity into opening up the conversations, if you ask me heh

    RE: ‘Being added to a list just means that you have been categorised into a silo’ < Oh, by all means, no! If the list is public it’s public to everyone and that means everyone can see it and access it and be exposed to those tweets in a particular context. No silo in there, I am afraid. On the timeline you would be since it’s you the only person who can access it and make sense of it. Now it becomes a collective exercise of potentially everyone who may be interested.

    RE: ‘There’s no right or wrong here.’ < I think this quote just pretty much nails it. I think I may have been a bit too passionate in my comment over here about what I’m doing, but, by all means, not trying to convince everyone that they should all move away from lists. On the contrary, it works really well for me, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for others. And that’s just fine. After all, that’s what Twitter i all about: everyone trying to make sense of it and see what works and what may not work. But unless we try new things we would never know. And I think that’s what permeates still through with this initiative that we’re exploring new ways of making sense of Twiter and see if it sticks or not. If it does, great, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. At least, we tried. That’s what I’m finding the most interesting from the whole initiative since I started a few months ago.

    That’s why I don’t think that long exchange on Twitter you folks had the other and that I tried to add my ¢2 shortly afterwards was a mere reaction to prove a point you may, or may not, be wrong. On the contrary, to me, it was a wonderful conversation that triggered your blog post and the follow-up commentary from everyone else.

    RE: ‘When we decide to change a behaviour, it doesn’t hurt to consider the effect that change may have on others as well as ourselves.’ to explain plenty of the reasoning as to what I was attempting to do with this initiative of unfollowing people in Twitter and try to see if there would be better ways of making sense of it. To me, it’s working. A few other folks are trying it out as well and they are enjoying it. Will it take over? I don’t know. It will depend on whether other folks are willing to explore, play and see what they can learn from the experience, but at this point I don’t think I’d consider it selfish trying to figure out different ways of sense making and extracting value from some of the social tools we use daily, don’t you think? After all, it’s all about sparking a conversation and I think we may have just had a really good one. Please, Sharon, don’t take it as a personal attack on you, on whether you were wrong or something. It was not meant that way, at all.

  4. Thanks for the great comment Luis. I await Twitter’s expansion to a 10K character limit with trepidation 🙂

    … seriously, I’m with you there. The 140-char limit has its uses but it does hamper the ability to scratch deeper beneath the surface and maybe its removal will kill off that workaround people are using of embedding entire paragraphs as images…

    All I was trying to say was the act of unfollowing everyone might just have an impact on some of the people you follow. Completely separate to the ongoing engagement on Twitter. And that perspective didn’t seem to have been considered. My gut instinct is that if everyone followed suit, and we all had accounts showing as ‘Following 0 | Followers 0’ the dynamic of Twitter would change, or people would bork lists in the same way they borked the Following process…

    I’m trying not to be pessimistic about Twitter, but the more Twitter itself messes up our timelines, I suspect you will yet again be proven to have been ahead of the rest 🙂

  5. Hi Sharon, many thanks for the follow-up and for the wonderful commentary! Much appreciated! Oh, yeah, never mind the Twitter Storms with endless tweets to prove a certain point or the repeated tweets at different intervals during the day just because you may have missed it in the first place. I suspect the 10k character limit will break more our usual habits in Twitter and perhaps to a point of no return where we may not be able to call it Twitter anymore than the unfollowing experiment. Time will tell when we see it happening, but I think after nearly 10 years being out there some times things need to evolve, change, adapt to the times we live if they would still want to be ‘in the market’.

    Your comments about what would happen if everyone would be 0 following and 0 follower over time is something I don’t think is going to happen any time soon and for a simple thing I’m thinking at this moment: DMs. I doubt anyone would go ahead and open their DMs to be DMed by everyone! on Twitter whether they follow them or not. I think that bravery will be missing from the equation. I know it required a bit of courage from my side as one would get exposed to DMs from potential strangers, as well as beyond the 140 character limitation.

    However, I did try it and I love it. I hardly get any spam or I have yet to see the first DM going beyond 2000 characters, for instance (Have sent a few long-ish ones myself!) and yet it’s transformed entirely the way I interact with people via DM with longer exchanges. Now, will open DMs work for everybody? I don’t think so. Why I don’t think everyone will go for the 0 following / 0 follower. But, still, it’s something I wanted to give it a try and it works with me. Maybe, over time, Twitter will take it more seriously getting rid of them as they hinted a couple of years ago themselves, but that they never pursued. Who knows. Guess we will have to wait and see how it’d work out. The thing I’m enjoying the most though is that it’s helped me engage more often / regularly with other folks and get involved in some pretty amazing conversations, which, I guess, is what Twitter was meant to be in the first place vs. just another marketing machine where we get exposed to broadcasts only.

    Plus, it’s not that easy to bork lists as following / follower is, perhaps because it hasn’t got enough attention yet 😉

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