The Great Twitter Unfollow Experiment of 2011

This week, I unfollowed everyone on Twitter. That was over 131,000 people. I didn’t do it manually, but rather, with some help (ask @jesse, if you need custom help like that). My reason was that I’d started receiving over 200 direct message spams a day. (These messages said things like “lol, look at this funny photo,” with a link that would enslave my account to send similar messages.)

I learned a few things in the process.

People React Before They Investigate

Because I knew some people might notice that I had unfollowed them on Twitter, I posted SEVERAL times a message to my stream that stated what I was doing, why I was doing it, and that I’d slowly follow people back.

I still received dozens of emails and several dozen messages on Twitter (and one really long and angry rant on Google+ that was surprising in the depth of what else she didn’t like about me, this person who believed it would be great to judge her perception of my life in 360 degrees). So, people don’t read. They react first.

People Tie Emotional Worth to Following

Many people wrote me fairly passionate statements as to why they hope I’d reconsider and follow them back. Many people also said they weren’t sure what they did to upset me, but that they were sorry. Some wrote me goodbyes as if they were losing a long time friend. Remember, I didn’t set out to do this to test whether people would feel sad if I unfollowed them, mind you. I was cleaning up a spam problem, but this observation was interesting and bears consideration, I think. And some of the people I’m talking about are big name types, too. Insecurity comes at all levels (and before you think I’m throwing stones, I can be very insecure).

People Want the Channel Open

In several cases, I saw a tweet like this, “I haven’t read @chrisbrogan’s tweets much lately. Maybe that’s why he unfollowed me. :(” . I found this kind of funny. If you’re not reading my tweets, why should you care? And yet, they do. I think it’s because they somehow see me following them as some kind of endorsement. I don’t know. Maybe a validation? “If @chrisbrogan thinks my tweets are worth following…” but that’s just it. When you follow 131,000 people, you don’t see any tweets.

People Want Reciprocity

Perhaps my favorite responses were from people I didn’t even know saying, “@chrisbrogan unfollowed me, so I just unfollowed him!” This means that the only value the person had with me was as a reciprocal user? My information lacked value to these people. Instead, it was the number, or at best, the name. But many people only follow those who follow them. I imagine this means they don’t have televisions, because the stations don’t have cameras set up in their living rooms.

On Following Back

I’m slowly following people back. What I’m enjoying so far is the act of seeing who comes to mind immediately, and how connecting with one friend reminds me of other friends, and so on. I’ve met tens of thousands of people over the last handful of years, so it’s going to take a while to reconnect everyone. Along the way, I’m enjoying actually seeing people’s streams for the first time in a while.

Social Media Users Have Lots of Perceptions of the “Rules”

There are no hard and fast rules. There are actions that will get you reactions. There are norms that are amplified in the digital space where there are fewer signals to follow. But the rules are all an imaginary set that you can test for yourself all you want. You want to use Twitter your own way? Do so. Make it valuable for you. If others say you’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong.

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