I love Twitter. I really do. I think it’s among the most brilliant and successful social experiments performed on the internet. Simple concepts like hashtags, retweets and @-mentions have allowed Twitter to cultivate a global conversation where other forms of social media have failed. The world seems to shrink whenever I check my feed, which, admittedly, happens at least a dozen times in a day.
The 140-character limit appears to have something to do with this. Unlike blogs, message boards or Facebook posts, no tweet is more of a commitment than any other, which means boredom typically isn’t on the agenda. Twitter forces us to communicate—and thus think—succinctly, or else link to something off-site which our followers may or may not decide is worth a click.
Twitter is great for me, as someone with a verified account (meaning I’m technically a “public figure”) and 50,000 or so followers. Fans of The Bold and the Beautiful or my YouTube channel don’t have to mail me a letter ℅ CBS Studios or send an email to an account I’ll almost certainly forget to check; I can have immediate and quick interactions with fans, often in real time. I can’t respond to everyone, of course, and this leaves more than a few followers feeling understandably frustrated. But the upshot is that, with Twitter, people can be confident I’ve at least seen what they had to say. And I promise you, I appreciate it.
Because I love to debate (and encourage my followers to call me out whenever they disagree with something I’ve said), I often find myself engaged in rapid-fire exchanges with people I don’t know, on just about any subject. I love that. And as someone who values critical thinking, the character limit creates an incentive to get my point across as clearly and with as few words possible. Everything has to be bottom-lined, and this makes it an especially stimulating challenge. I really believe it’s made me more intelligent.
But for the most part, I use Twitter not as a “tweeter,” but as a follower. (Perhaps this is a depressing metaphor for my life.) It’s where I go to consume the news, information, thoughts, media and updates I want every day. I’m selective about whom I follow on Twitter, because I don’t want my feed to become so crowded that I miss something I would have wanted to see.
And this actually poses a unique problem: many Twitter users request—and in some cases, expect—that the accounts they follow reciprocate by following them back. I regularly receive tweets like, “Would love a follow back plz!”, or, “Follow 4 follow!”. I admit, I’ve never quite understood the reasoning behind this: if I follow Sean Carroll (the physicist), or Mark Knoller (the White House correspondent), or Aziz Ansari (the comedian), it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say, not because I want them to hear what I have to say. I take it that if Mr. Ansari wanted to see my tweets, he’d have following me by now. And if I do have something to say that I specifically want Aziz Ansari to see, I would simply tweet to him.
Suppose the reason my followers want me to follow them back is because they really do want me to read all of their tweets, and suppose further that I oblige everyone who asks. Well, now we run into a mathematical problem: I’m following thousands of extra people I don’t know, which means that my own twitter feed becomes so overpopulated that I’ve reduced the probability of seeing any given tweet to that of finding a needle in a haystack.
Moreover—if you’ll allow me to be awkwardly selfish for a moment—it would also mean I’d have to give up on the likelihood of seeing tweets from the accounts I’m genuinely interested in. Try on what this would be like from your own perspective: If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you also follow me, @CliftonsNotes, on Twitter. Presumably, this is because you are interested, on some level, in what I tweet. How many other accounts do you follow out of similar interest? Fifty? A hundred? Five hundred? Imagine following tens of thousands of Twitter accounts you don’t know. The odds against you seeing any of my tweets, let alone all of them, would be overwhelming. Sure, you could create a separate, private account, or manually navigate to all your favorite Twitter pages to check for new posts. But this defeats the elegance and uniformity of the Twitter experience, and would ultimately function as a disincentive to check Twitter, or do any tweeting yourself.
So it’s a lose/lose. Following my followers back makes it highly improbable that I’ll see your tweet, or the tweets of the people I currently follow. And if you’re someone who feels dismissed or insulted that I didn’t follow you back, think of this as my humble pitch to you that there’s a better way, for both of us: whenever there’s something specific you want me to see, just @-mention me in your tweet. I can’t promise a reply, but I’m far more likely to see it than I would if I followed you (and by necessity, other followers) back.
And hey, maybe I’m misunderstanding the whole thing. Maybe it’s not necessarily about wanting me to see your tweets. Maybe you couldn’t care less what I read or don’t. Rather, having more followers, specifically high-profile or verified ones, is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, emblematic of one’s Twitter status. Follows are like Pokémon: Collect ‘em all!
Well if that’s the case, then let’s make it a game: consider me that ultra rare, mint-condition collectable that few people have gotten their hands on. Want me to follow you? Earn it the old fashioned way! Tweet stuff I find interesting! Then brag to your friends: “I nabbed a follow from @CliftonsNotes, what have you done with your life?” (I’m only pretending to be delusionally narcissistic to make a point, I promise.)
I should, however, acknowledge the fact that there are many Twitter “celebrities” who are not only happy to oblige the request for a returned follow, they reciprocate automatically. On a few occasions, I’ve been surprised to find that an account I began following had immediately followed me back in turn. “Does (philosopher) Stephen Lawe watch soap operas or something?”, I said to myself, clicking on his profile. “Oh, wait—nevermind, he does this with everyone.”
I can only imagine that public figures like this do not actually use their Twitter accounts personally, to consume information, get news, or read thoughts and updates of people who interest them; rather, they appear to treat Twitter exclusively as a PR platform. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I’d be heartbroken if I could only use social media in this way. I’m just too much like you.
To paraphrase the immortalized words of Gwen Stefani, I ain’t no follow-back girl.