Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is "Twitter for business" ruining it for the rest of us?

The obvious answer to this question is "No" since so many people blend their personal and professional lives in their participation in this social network.

But I'm talking about the relatively new movement to use Twitter not to connect with people you're interested in communicating with, in meeting or have met, but to build a huge public profile for personal branding purposes.

It makes me wonder what it now means to be "influential". It used to be judged, admittedly superficially, by number of Twitter followers but is that a reliable indicator any more? Or do we need to change what "influential" means in Social Media?

This morning, I sent an email to Twitter Grader asking them this question. Excerpts of it are below:

I don't know if you've noticed or not but since Oct/Nov 2008, newcomers to Twitter have grown exponentially due to TV and newspapers coverage of Twitter use by the media and celebrities and publicity of Twitter at business, tech & media conferences. Many people are using Twitter in a completely different way than before which might change (or not!) your grading system.

Past: People created Twitter accounts and began following other people...some followed them back, some didn't. But, for most people, who you followed was only roughly equal in number to those who followed you. Many people wanted to follow Twitter leaders in technology and social marketing like Kevin Rose, Mashable, Mediaphyer, Tim O'Reilly, Problogger, Ev, Fred Wilson, etc. Frequently, these popular users followed no or very few of their followers back. People accepted that not every relationship on Twitter was reciprocal and that their follower and following lists probably contained some different names.

Twitterers' follower numbers grew gradually the longer they were members on Twitter and active on it. Some people's accounts grew faster than others but unless one was a celebrity, your follower number roughly reflected your longevity and popularity on Twitter.

Now: Since Twitter has become more publicized, a new strategy of using it has emerged popularized by some people (I've seen conference notes detailing this strategy). The idea is to gain as many followers as possible in the shortest amount of time. To do this, you follow the maximum number of people Twitter initially allows (2000), drop all of the people who don't automatically follow you back, reach the maximum number again (2000), drop nonfollowers, repeat over and over again. As you gain more followers in this manner, your maximum number you can follow rises and you keep up this following/unfollowing pattern indefinitely.

The result? These new Twitterers can rack up 10,000 followers in less than a month and a dozen Tweets. But are they influential? I don't know. I'm sure if they get big enough (50K followers or more), people will pay attention to them purely because of their size. But there is no commonality linking the followed to the following because they weren't chosen because of shared interests or desire for connecting or for any reason other than they followed back. I'm not sure if any of them read the Tweets they receive other than Direct Messages or Replies to them.

I'm sure that the top 100 or 200 of the Twitter Elite list is radically different than it was 2 months ago if it is based on pure follower numbers. A lot of old timers have dropped off the list and have been replaced with people who I'm not sure can be considered "influential" as much as successful in racking up high follower numbers with a "I'll follow you if you follow me" policy.

You may or may not agree but I think this new strategic use of Twitter (to create a large personal profile rather than build a like-minded network), will test how you measure "influence". So many of these people with large accounts--5K, 10K, 20K+--came out of nowhere and have posted less than 100 Tweets in some cases.

My interest in this is the question of how we measure influence when people are gaming the old ways of building status within a community. A lot of people look to Twitter Grader as the definitive measure of influence so I wanted to just plant a seed of whether your algorithms should or can account for a new way of building social ties (influence? I think not so much).
What do you think? Am I observing a real and significant change on Twitter or just being sentimental for the old days when there were fewer users and a traditional system of building ones' social network?

And to answer your question, yes, I do think about Twitter, and social networking in general, a lot!


Daniel Tenner said...

I hadn't thought of it from this angle. To me, those people are one simple thing: spammers.

I don't see how (ab)using that strategy to "gain followers quickly" is any better than sending unsolicited emails to 10 million people.

Generally, when I find such people, I tend to either ignore them if they look like they're just foolish, or actively block them if they seem to have done this with a commercial agenda.

I wish Twitter would quite simply block those people from being on Twitter. They are abusing the service and subverting it to their ends, which are mostly pure self-promotion.

The simplest way to implement this would be to automatically block anyone who displays the pattern of following large numbers of people and unfollowing them soon after. There must be fairly straightforward ways to detect when a bot is doing the following/unfollowing as opposed to a human, and auto-ban them. I guess the Twitter team is just too busy to implement it at the moment.


Liz said...

That's an interesting suggestion, Daniel, but, for good or ill, Twitter is a online world of few rules. And Twitter management is pretty hands off. There would have to be a lot of complaints from people they listen to to get them to implement a suggestion like yours.

And what these folks are doing is completely "legal", meaning, there is nothing inherent wrong with their action. It's just that I think people forget that Twitter is a SOCIAL network to create relationships and not a BUSINESS network to create a personal brand for yourself or your company.

I think in the first 2 years, people saw their business and personal needs as intertwined while many of the newbies think of the social/personal as a way to further their business/career ambitions.

the nut said...

My take on this has been that people should not assume follower numbers = credibility and influence. I have been advising people that follower numbers as a "currency" are essentially devalued now and should probably be ignored.

I don't actually see much tie between "Twitter for Business" and the idea that people are spamming the system. That some LION users on LinkedIn take a "connect to as many as possible" approach does not mean LinkedIn cannot be used as a reasonable professional networking platform.

I've never much cared for all the hype around "having many followers" and I hope awareness that there are many follower collection scams (there's also a ponzi scheme and an automated greasemonkey script that will attempt to detect those who automatically follow back, and follow only them.

Of note, I have noticed Twitter trying to crack down on accounts that "game" the follower system.

Monica Valentinelli said...

This came up in my webinar yesterday, from the perspective that these "stats" (i.e. number of followers, RTs, etc.) aren't as valuable as having actual conversations with people.

I'd rather have 200 followers who interact with my brands than 10,000 who don't bother. The bigger the brand, the more of a popularity contest it seems to me.

Warren said...

What is the point of acquiring huge numbers of followers if you have nothing in common with them or nothing interesting to say. It's just another competitive game like Twittergrader in Twitter's high school. Follower numbers do not make credibility and influence. Engagement is the key- how do you converse with those followers.

Alana Coble said...

I certainly don't expect everyone I follow to follow me, and vice versa. I follow only people who tweet useful / entertaining things. I hope people follow me for the same reason.

Now that Twitter has become more mainstream, I feel there will be growing pains. Just as we've developed spam filters for email, perhaps we'll have the same thing for Twitter.

In effect, not following someone is the same as using the Delete key for email, and also serves as a spam filter.

It's interesting to see how this follow-mania ties in with the make-lots-of-money-on-the-internet industry. There's room for everyone. And the rest of us can just say no.

Liz said...

Thank you for your comments, Alana, Warren, Monica and "nut"! I thought that maybe I should retitle this blog entry since some longtime users do use Twitter for building professional as well as personal connections. That is, there isn't a clear division between business and personal use.

But I think in the past, people joined Twitter as an experiment and started slowly started building up their network of contacts. This new usage is more strategic, seeing Twitter as a vehicle to promote yourself and your business.

I don't mean to sound anti-business and I know Twitter has to "monetize" (hate that word), but first and foremost, Twitter is a set of interlocking circles of community.

If it starts to become more of a marketplace with people yelling from soapboxes, I think it'll cause people who see Twitter as a meeting place to start cutting back on the number of people they follow because of the noise level.

FreeRangeMom said...

Right there with you. You sound like "old school" Twitter. Kinda miss the days before it hit the mainstream.

Christoph said...

I agree that the number of followers did once indicate how 'influential' / 'important' a user was. Well, having said that, it actually still does when you look at CNN, Obama, Kevin Rose and others. All of them have huge follower numbers.

Influence and importance are very subjective matters. It all depends on my interests and situation.

I like Mr. Tweet because it suggests interesting people based on my Twitter network and content. The results are much more relevant to me than a naked number.

Also, #followfriday and #wefollow will replace Twittergrader because it is based on explicit decisions made by people. Again, the results are much more valuable than a Twittergrade.

Dodito said...

Hmmm I can see your point but such a trend is inevitable with any new technology. I see two things here:

1) is it "bad". I don't think it is, what's wrong with trying to establish a bigger brand for yourself. ? If you want to use it for personal networking benefit only anyway.. does it matter how many followers others have ?

2) Is it effective ? That remains to be seen. Perhaps they sell their audience by doing product introductions (just like a blogger and as you said much faster) but I have not heard (yet) of a twitter product placement business model.

But yeah.. you can see that happen $10 bucks and I post your deodorant message to 10,000 ppl.

No way you can charge much (no demographics, no proof ppl read it).. but 140 char. product tweet is typed quickly.

slyparadox said...

I think about social networking a lot too; I'm trying to cut back!

藍心湄Blue said...