Fly Fishing for Followers on Twitter

by Dan Hutson on September 1, 2009


photo by rengber

Hi. My name is Dan and I’m a partially reformed twitterholic. No, it doesn’t mean that I’ve cut back on Twitter. It’s still a healthy part of my daily social media diet. What I mean is that I’ve come to terms with the probability that I will never have the tens of thousands of followers that everyone seems to be lusting after.

In fact, I’m happier for it. Twitter as a numbers game never really made sense to me. I’ve strolled through the crowds of followers attracted to some of the big names on Twitter, and frankly it’s not a crowd I’m interested in hanging with. There are lots of bots, lots of people selling their automated follower generation tools, lots of people who really haven’t anything interesting to say to me.

I suppose that’s fine if you see Twitter primarily as a sales tool … the more the merrier, I guess. But if it’s a tool for engagement and relationship-building, for collaboration and resoure-sharing or even just as a metaphorical cocktail party, then the quality of the people you invite to your party is more important than the number who show up.

I work in marketing and communications. I work primarily with nonprofits. I also have a strong entrepreneurial itch that I’ve attempted to satisfy with a couple of dips into business ownership. And as a former journalist I have a strong interest in the future of news and how news-gathering organizations are evolving to survive and perhaps even thrive in our shiny happy digital future.

Knowing all this, it shouldn’t comes as a big shock that I tend to follow fellow marcomm pros and social media folk, people who work in the nonprofit trenches, social entrepreneurs, disgruntled (and gruntled) journos, academics who prognosticate on the future of newspapers, and others of a similar bent. All in all a pretty interesting group if you share my interests.

Once you get over the boozy promiscuity of following anyone who will follow you, then building a network on Twitter gets to be a bit more enjoyable.

People with big Twitter followings who suddenly follow me out of the blue remind me of baleen whales. They’re the ones that, when feeding, swim around with their mouths open wide, taking in vast quantities of plankton that are filtered through baleen plates, comblike structures that capture food like a miner’s sieve. Anything not big enough to feed on passes through back into the ocean.

I prefer fly fishing to the open-maw method. I wade out into the stream and cast a line for those who share my professional interests. I use WeFollow, Mr. Tweet, Twellow and even Twitter Search through hashtags to identify potential followers. I’ll follow the most interesting prospects who seem to share my interests for awhile and see if they bite by following me back. If they seem follow-worthy despite not following me back, I’ll continue to follow them; if not, I’ll throw them back.

My own Twitter stream is full of links to great articles and resources related to social media, marketing, communications, journalism and related subjects. Occasionally I’ll hook someone because they find value in what I’m sharing. Sometimes others visit my blog, like what they see and decide to follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

I frequently go fishing in other people’s streams as well. You may have been more successful than me in finding others worth following. Or I’ll find great people among your followers. I have no problem with poaching and encourage you to do the same in my stream.

OK, I don’t want to beat a dead trout. I think you get the picture. In my opinion the quality of your Twitter experience is directly related to the quality of the people you follow and who follow you back.  Turning it into a numbers game is a hollow practice and ultimately not where the true value of social media lies.


Debra Askanase September 1, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Dan, Great post to get people thinking about their twitter strategy. I also struggle with the point of thousands of followers. I know we’ve spoken about Dunbar’s number, and I’m really running up against that number for my Twitter relationships. However, on the flip side, I think that having a lot of motivated followers (or enthusiastic ones) is quite beneficial. As a consultant, I want to offer great information, but I also want to be able to leverage my followers periodically on behalf of my clients. This is where the tension between quality vs. quantity lies. What are your thoughts related to this?

Dan Hutson September 1, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Good point, Debra. Using tools like Seesmic and Tweetdeck, I suppose you can create your “Dunbar’s group” of folk you want to stay close to, then check in periodically with the rest. But then that feels like cheating. Although the technology enables us to stay in close contact with ever-increasing numbers of people, at the end of the day there’s you and your limited human capacity to build and maintain true relationships with people.

For all the talk about social media being different from broadcast, we’re using it for broadcasting purposes just the same. Maybe it should be called “semi-social media” and acknowledge that we all have rings: an inner Dunbar’s ring for those we’re most connected to and engaged with, followed by a ring of those we reach out to (and who reach out to us) for conversation and assistance, followed by an outer ring of those who are lightly connected by technology because they value what we have to share (or vice versa).

In this scenario, I could maintain a tight circle of followers where there’s mutual agreement as to our respective relationship value, but still support larger numbers for purposes of leveraging my social capital. Of course, it would be nice if the social media tools we use enabled us to make these kinds of designations beyond simply putting people in boxes, maybe even intuit the relative value of a relationship based on type, frequency and quality of interactions.

OK, my brain hurts now. You’re making me think too much.

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