For past generations that cared about etiquette (or could type it without spell-check), Emily Post was the authority. From the placement of the plates and the guests to the phrasing of the invitations, there was a way things were done in proper circles. In contrast, today we have Emily Post-Modern, who is more liable to solicit opinions on the Yahoo! Answers page. Our notions of proper etiquette are no longer top-down, they are bottom-up – and online, there are a lot of people showing their bottoms when it comes to telling others how to behave.
As social networks mature, so do the rules of engagement. An influx of new users who share an alternate view of the purpose and protocol can indeed change the culture of an already existing community. You might be seeing it now within your Facebook circle, as a new wave of friends has more interest in sharing links and pictures and less in throwing snowballs of initiating Zombie attacks. To a greater degree, you’re seeing it happen in Twitter, because the walls are more open and there’s no permission required to “follow” another user.
Twitter has fewer walls and wide open possibilities. At least with Facebook, there are some boxes that hint at various forms of activity. Twitter is open for direct conversations, for bragging, for quiet announcements, for link-sharing, for meme-sharing, and for a quick huddle about the ephemera of the moment. As such, the way individual users see the network as a whole can vary widely.
Personally, I’ve seen my use of Twitter evolve over two years. I’ve found the way I interact with others and my expectations are driven by the number of people I am following. For a long time, I had a hard ceiling of 50. I added a few communicators and marketers who were interesting, and with whom I could share ideas and questions. Over time, that ceiling became harder to maintain, and I eased up to 80. Then 100. Adding more people to the conversation should provide more merriment, right?
Actually, you’ll reach a point where you’re just adding more chaos. You’ll have invited so many people to the party that you can’t readily find the people you’re really interested in hearing from. And several of the people who were interesting two months ago have suddenly found another purpose, and are now onto topics you have no real yen to track.
At one point, I was following 893 people. I thought that made me a good citizen. But Twitter ceased to be fun and became more of a chore. When you spend more time tending an online tool than the value it provides in return, you need to re-evaluate.
I’ll repeat that for the people who are now accusing me of Social Media Heresy:
When you spend more time tending an online tool than the value it provides in return, you need to re-evaluate.
You can define ‘value’ in a number of ways. Personally, I get a level of satisfaction from helping others. When I have the random moment to assist someone with a perspective or a request, it builds credibility and relationships. The First Bank of Karma is not federally guaranteed, but the deposits can pay big dividends. But not so much that I would trudge through an un-fun timeline to interact – so I trimmed back. I cut my following list down to almost 350. It’s since ballooned back to 540, and soon I will trim again.
It’s not personal. If you get a kick out of what I write, then that’s cool. If you enjoy the links I share, then that’s cool. If you like how I drill concepts like Personal Brand to the extremes of absurdity to make a point, then welcome to the train. But I can’t and won’t autofollow everyone in return. It’s not healthy and it’s not sane.
Here are my guidelines for how I follow on Twitter. If I’m not following you now and you think I should, this is how to get there:
Ike’s Twitter formula. Steal as much as you’d like.
If you just followed me out of the blue, I will look at your profile.
• If I see no profile picture and no link to a site, I will likely pass.
• If I see that you have followed a couple of hundred people and have fewer than 40 tweets, then I will likely not follow you. (No offense, but it means you probably picked my up from a Twitter Pack somewhere, and with that little use you’re not really sure WHAT you’ll be talking about yet.)
• If all of your tweets look eerily similar, I will likely pass.
• If none of the tweets on your front page interest me, I will likely pass.
• If you are in B2B marketing, affiliate marketing, SEO, or real estate, I will likely pass. UNLESS your tweets are more diverse and human.
If I see some things that I like, I will do a Twitter Search on your username.
• If I see people I know talking with you, I will probably follow you.
• If I see someone I know who recommended me, I will definitely follow you.
The biggest sticky for me is engagement.
• If you send me enough relevant @ replies, I will follow you.
• If you send me links to things that you know fall within my interest, I will follow you.
• If you’re always in the middle of interesting conversations, I will follow you.
I have a plan to shape my follow list:
• I follow people who are local to me.
• I follow people who are in the same region.
• I tend to follow other communicators and marketers.
• I follow people who are interesting.
• I follow people with similar political views, who are interesting.
• I follow people with opposite political views, who are interesting.
• I follow people who are likely to converse.
Finally, here are my guidelines about how I use Twitter. When you have a few moments, open the home page, and do the following:
• Look for anyone asking a question. If you can answer it, go ahead and do so. Since it’s on the first page, it’s a very recent query, and your prompt answer means so much to those who ask.
• Look for interesting links on the page.
• Look for interesting conversations. Sometimes, that means looking up people I am not following. If interested, I will follow.
• Recommend someone on the page to someone else you think they’re not following. If it’s a relatively new user, do it publicly because they’ll benefit from the curiosity. If they’re already a seasoned user, do it as a DM. That takes it away from being a shout-out, and makes it a truly personal endorsement.
• Leave a link of my own. Maybe even a retweet of someone else. (I have my own method. I yell FAVORITED! and provide a link back to the status message.)
Your mileage may vary, and for your sake it should. Just don’t let “community expectations” bully you into changing how you use any service or network. Those expectations are subject to change at the whims of the crowd, and how wise is that?
Ike Pigott’s work with social media tools in times of crisis and disaster has been cited often as a case study within that field. A former journalist and Emmy-winning writer, Ike founded Positive Position Media Consulting through which he has coached hundreds of managers and executives for media interviews and crisis situations. He writes about communications at Occam’s RazR.