March 15, 2009

The Value of the Unfollow

This post is about Twitter in specific, but also about social networks in general.

We had a nice Pi day yesterday at BOB and Patti's house, playing a few games, eating pie of various sorts and, as usual, sharing a few laughs. The subject of Twitter came up at one point, and I mentioned people who have hundreds of followers.

Chuck said something to the effect of "How can someone possibly follow that many people?"

It's something I've wondered myself, and we weren't even talking about the folks who have tens of thousands of follows. Truly, what sort of relationship does someone with that many follows (not followers, but folks they follow) have with their online friends? I want to address the effect of the number of followers on networks, efficiency, and value.

How should you feel when someone who follows 30,000 people follows you? How does that compare to someone following 3,000, 300 people, 30 people, or 3 people?

The person following 3 people is either your Twitter-resistant spouse, your mom, or a stalker.

That's a joke, but it makes sense because these are all people who are giving you a large portion of their attention, people with whom you have a close personal relationship.

The Twitter account with 30,000 is broadcasting, which is a one-way relationship, even if they're following you. It's easy to see why.

A Fraction of Attention

If you think of your time and attention as a limited commodity, then your partitioning of it to multiple people leaves less and less for each person. Normally, people can't easily see how much you value each individual connection of your network. However, with Twitter, it's right out in the open. In the account which follows 3,000 people, you are roughly 1/10th as valuable as if that person was following 300 people.

It's not an exact mathematics by any means, because there are tools that allow you to focus your attention on certain individuals and their may be some efficiencies in using Twitter which allow you to increase the overall value of your attention slightly with a large number of Twitter follows. However, attention is still limited and so a slight increase in your value as a member of the network is still divvied up over the entire network.

The fraction of their attention gets closer and closer to zero.

Fraction = Zero

And, coming back to filtering, let's say that a Twitter user is following 3,000 people but uses a tool like TweetDeck to single out 50 people whom have their actual attention. The rest are essentially filtered out; 2,950 may have a false illusion that they've got a fraction of this person's attention, when in reality they have almost none of their attention.

Efficient Network

It seems like an efficient network should be working for you. The idea that you need to filter Twitter messages is an indication that your network may have failed you.

Picture a network with about 50 nodes, as I've depicted here. Assume each node is a person and assume that each connection is bidirectional: a pair of people that follow each other.


This graph is highly connected, but not saturated. In other words, despite all of the interconnections, many people are still not mutually following other people. I have artificially separated the graph into two groups of nodes, just to illustrate a contrast with the next graph.


This graph has two natural groups of nodes which are strongly interconnected, but between the two natural groups there are few interconnections. However, the two groups are still connected.

Which graph is more organized, and what does that mean for the quality of the communications in the network that the graph represents?

The second graph is more organized. I suggest that this causes natural filtering in the network. To illustrate, imagine this scenario: people are talking about their lunches, a bad joke, the weather, an illness, and then some event of national interest happens. In the first network, the smallest details are transmitted nearly universally over the entire network. When a more important event occurs, half of the network announces it causing everyone in the network to get a ton of repeat messages.

In the second graph, the less-universally-interesting messages only tend to stay within the tightly-connected sub-networks. How many people are going to repeat that Sally stubbed her toe? When a bigger message happens and is repeated, it will cross sub-networks. While it does so, the chatter within the chatter remains within sub-networks and only certain elevated items cross over.

Having many internally-connected sub-networks loosely connected with each other limits the noise and increases the signal because the community naturally filters out noise by not repeating it; the "signal" or anything worth repeating is more likely to cross to other sub-networks simply because it's getting repeated.

Instead of an individual having to filter out noise, the well-organized network does some of that work for you.


Spoilers are another good example. If you are close friends with a bunch of like-mined people when it comes to spoilers, you're unlikely to hear a spoiler from one of them. Not only are your "close friends" going to refrain from posting spoilers, spoilers are often spontaneously generated while people are watching a TV show; they're not the kind of thing that gets automatically repeated. So they're more likely to stay within a sub-network. If you have trouble avoiding spoilers, this might be a symptom of having too large a number of connections.

Adding By Subtracting

Earlier today, I went through and unfollowed some folks that I have been following. I based the decision partly on the value of their tweets and partly on whether they had huge follow lists.

If you follow me and 30 other people, you are likely having a conversation or some sort of relationship with me. If you follow 300 people but I occasionally get @replies from you, we're having a conversation. Conversations are of value.

If you follow and are followed by thousands of people, you're crossing over into broadcasting. If you're a broadcaster, I should more strictly judge the value of your messages because the conversation is missing; your effort in tweeting useful stuff must make up for that.

I removed people this morning for 2 reasons. Reason 1 was because their value had dropped. Reason 2 was so that I could add value to the other people I mutually follow. I added to my value to them by subtracting some of my follows.

I don't want to miss good stuff from the people I care enough about to follow, and I also want them to know that my limited attention is worth something.

Don't Be the Network

If you're following a ton of people to grow your network, consider the actual value of those connections. Being part of a network doesn't mean being connected to nearly everyone of value. People two connections away are still part of the network. Adding too many connections is an attempt to be at the center of the network, an attempt to be the network and take the place of the network. If you're busy being the network, you're not going to be of the same value.

Let the network be the network.

Posted by James at March 15, 2009 3:21 PM

Create Social Bookmark Links

"Earlier today, I went through and unfollowed some folks that I have been following. I based the decision partly on the value of their tweets and partly on whether they had huge follow lists."

OK, so how many people got to this section and clicked over to their Twitter accounts to see if James was still following them before reading the rest of the post? ;)

I think perhaps you should give some thought to keeping on newbies who, while not very valuable at first, might be more valuable as they settle on a Twitter-dentity. I know I'm following some pretty silly stuff right now while I figure out if and how Twitter might fit into my work and life.

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at March 15, 2009 3:46 PM

Ha. I didn't go on an unfollow rampage. I dropped maybe four people.

As I mentioned, if you're talking back to me, that is additional value. That includes folks who talk to me outside of Twitter, like here and other websites.

It's just that I started to realize the value that those unfollows potentially brought to the people who were left.

Posted by: James at March 15, 2009 3:54 PM

I periodically block people who follow me when it is apparent that they are just 'building their networks' or are using Twitter for marketing some scam (re: You too can get a free iPhone!)

I follow a couple of identities that have tens of thousands of followers, because I am interested in their broadcasts: SANS and my doctor (who has a popular blog and sometimes writes for USA Today).

I love following people who follow me back and will engage in the time-shifted conversation of Twitter. It's fun also to eavesdrop, as it were, on the time-shifted conversations of people I follow who are conversing this way with others.

If you want to build an 'impressive network'... save it for LinkedIn.

Posted by: Kitten Herder at March 15, 2009 11:45 PM

I think you're right on. I don't see anything wrong (and I'm not saying you do either) with broadcasting - as long as the broadcaster is taking care in building a network that is best for it - that includes taking the time to think "Does HotChick79 have a profile that looks like she'd want to receive regular broadcasts from a pre-industrial revolution knitting museum?", vice simply following everything in sight. If they really want to be taken seriously it's best for them to take that interest.

Posted by: Bull at March 16, 2009 11:12 AM

Correct -- I'm describing different functions, not judging them.

I follow a couple of people who are broadcasting, but their occasional tweets are worth my attention.

An example of a situation that would probably fall below my threshold: George Stephanopoulos is going to interview John McCain on Twitter. Not only does that seem like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but they'll both be broadcasting and they'll be flooding my Twitter stream with messages if I follow them. No thanks; I'll read the transcript on a web page. That's what web pages are for.

Posted by: James at March 16, 2009 11:25 AM

Robert Scoble explains how he follows thousands: he dips in and out of Twitter. He sees trends. He watches for "@" replies.

Some people like to follow back everyone who follows them. Some people follow because it allows for direct messages.

I follow 300+. They don't all post every day. Some don't even post every week. My reader gathers my tweet stream 24/7. I read it to relax.

The question isn't "How do They do it?" The question is "What do you do? What suits YOU?" Everyone is different.

Posted by: Vicki at March 17, 2009 1:24 AM

Actually, I think "How do they do it" is quite a good question. We can learn a lot from how other people use tools. We learn about the tools and about them.

I didn't explore "how" or "why" here in any depth. I think a blog post that discussed widely different methods for following large numbers of people on Twitter might be interesting (and probably has already been written more than once).

You're right -- people are different. People also have different "why" answers. I wonder how different motivations in the use of Twitter effects the value of the two-way relationship.

Posted by: James at March 17, 2009 7:05 AM

I could follow more people if some of the people I wanted to follow didn't tweet fifteen times an hour (which I consider to be a lot).

I briefly followed one long-lost friend. She tweeted (and replied to tweets, meaning that she was reading as much as she was writing) so frequently that I didn't see where she found time to do anything else, but I know she was doing other stuff. And it was mostly very mundane stuff, like "going to the gym" or "picking a new font, what should I choose?"

I definitely wondered "how." Also "why." Not "why does she do that" - that's her business - but "why am I following this person." My other friends' much pithier tweets were getting smothered by her avalanche of mundane musings. I had to unfollow.

Posted by: Julie at March 17, 2009 9:30 AM

Hey James, you've helped illustrate something which has been bugging me for awhile. Networking sites like Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace--people tend to go nuts getting networked to the point where the network loses its value.

This is why I think discussion fora or blogs are better than networks larger than a few dozen people.

Networking sites instead promote endless interlinking, and sometimes to extents that defeat the purpose of the site. When your CEO sends you a linked-in invitation, you can't really refuse. But then if you start making connections with competitors, he pretty much knows about it, doesn't he? If you have 3000 contacts on flickr, how can you possibly be looking at all of their photos? There just isn't enough time in the day. But even if you don't want to be a broadcaster, people who add you as a contact tend to want you to add them as well. Twitter messages (in my experience) tend to be largely empty of value--if someone has something important to say, they'll write a blog article or post on a forum--Twitter is more like light smalltalk at a party, but at a party you generally are talking with only a few people at a time, not everyone at once. 1,000 light conversations is just noise and Twitter (last I checked) has no concept of threading. "@JOE" has less meaning if Joe has posted 10 tweets in the last hour--which one are you responding to? If any? I was occasionally bitching about work in my twitter feed, but now my coworkers are discovering twitter and asking to follow me... so there goes that avenue of letting off steam.

When I look at the mad craze to form connections on sites like Twitter, flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc, you know what I see? Beanie Babies. People caught up in collecting something which essentially becomes valueless because of the amount of it which is collected. It's a social mania--and such things are nothing new. (Tulip mania anyone? )

So I've become pretty silent on such sites. I have no facebook page and I don't want one. Life is too short. When people I love write blog articles, I rarely comment these days unless I feel I really have something of value to add. I don't want to be more useless noise in their lives.

Posted by: Chuck S. at March 17, 2009 10:48 AM

It's a worthy goal not to add noise into people's lives, and that would naturally be reinforced if you don't find you're getting much value from certain kinds of online connections.

Twitter has stayed pretty simple in its interface, and by exposing an API has allowed other people to layer other functions on top of it. It's worked, to some extent. Hashtags are a form of threading, and since Twitter has integrated a search feature, searching across Twitter feeds allows you to see trends, or news. This is a use that is layered on top of the network.

Your Beanie Baby comparison over-trivializes online networks; it is easy to show that people are already getting far more actual value out of them than they ever got out of Beanie Babies.

True: Twitter and Facebook themselves may go away, but that's simply a reflection of changing technology. I you consider networks of people, then there is room for Twitter, email, forums, Facebook, MySpace, television, telephone, blogs ...

And while you might not be a member of Facebook, you are part of the extended network of Facebook users in the same way that is illustrated in my second graph above. Opting out of one network technology is similar to not following a particular person or group of people. But you still benefit from those connections.

I think that's part of your natural filtering. However, I also think you're underestimating the possible richness of these networks, if they're used right. Many users are new to them, so of course there is a lot of noise. That some people use them frivolously does not mean they must be used that way.

A colleague in Texas who I only see maybe once every 2 years announced the publishing of his article on Education Week today (via Facebook). That's useful info to me, and I might not have found out about it except for Facebook. Does this mean I need to be in a tighter network (or a forum) with him? I don't think so. I like the way this worked fine.

Posted by: James at March 17, 2009 11:37 AM

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