Twitter: Legend of the hollow follow

Sep. 04, 2009 | by Charlie Peverett

Image Credit: WatscapePhoto

In distributed media, there’s good reason to default to the parenting rule: “Praise what you like, ignore what you don’t like”. It means the rubbish and spam gets less attention, and you save hours a day – after all, someone is always wrong on the internet. Meanwhile, theoretically, the good stuff is recognised and  rises to the top. It is, I think, a good rule of thumb, particularly if you conduct parts of your online activity on behalf of a third party.

But I’m going to break that rule now. For the hollow follow.

The hollow follow goes like this: you mention something in a tweet – a place perhaps, or a product – and within seconds you’re notified that someone previously unknown to you is following your profile.

Initially, there’s that thrill of a new contact – someone’s interested in what you have to say,  potentially from anywhere in the world, perhaps from somewhere you’ve never heard of, maybe a person or a project that could become important to you…. The possibilities are endless.  But all too often, the wonder quickly evaporates. Because the follow has been generated by a robot, and it doesn’t look like there’s anyone at the other end to talk to. Anti-social media.

In these cases, all is not necessarily lost. If the new follower looks useful and isn’t obviously a spammer, I’ll follow back. I might try the odd @ message to see if I can tease a human response from the other end, and sometimes I get one. These kinds of connection often don’t come to much, but they’re not offensive – and sometimes they’re surprisingly rewarding.

But I’ve just experienced one of the most shamelessly hollow follows I’ve come across.

@Kent_Messenger is following you!

On Tuesday, I happened to mention in a tweet between me and a colleague the word ‘Maidstone’, which happens to be my home town. Within seconds, I was being followed by @Kent_Messenger – apparently the official Twitter feed for the leading county paper (though hard to be sure – there’s no presence on their website as yet).

Now, although I don’t live in Kent anymore, an RSS feed of the local news is something that interests me. So I followed @Kent_Messenger back, and sent a couple of tweets to try and elicit a response. Nothing. Ok, so they’re not really interested in me. Maybe they’re busy.

But yesterday I checked their profile again and found that they’d stopped following almost everyone they had been following the previous day. Including me. They’d cut the number to 5, but retained a big ‘followship’ (more than 500), presumably made up largely of people @Kent_Messenger had initially followed and who had followed back.

This takes some nerve. I don’t expect people who follow me to be agenda-free. I realise that they may well be selling something, or in some other way promoting themselves. It’s like, um, life in general.

But to follow, refuse to engage, and then drop once you’ve got the follow back is the lowest, hollowest of follows.

Ironically, the @Kent_Messenger feed – officially sanctioned or not – is not spam. It’s a potentially handy service, albeit little more than an RSS feed in its current form. Perhaps this fact has persuaded whoever’s behind the follow-and-dump policy that they don’t need to behave properly – they are, quite possibly, providing a service that the people they’re targeting actually want.

But whether you’re a corporate marketer or maverick promoter of editorial content, fishing for attention like this is plain bad manners.

And in this case it does nothing to persuade me that traditional media can adapt fast enough to the demands of a readership that expects to be treated as individuals – and can talk back.

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    Comments (6)

    • Charlie Peverett

      Thanks for the response; good to receive some @ replies from @Kent_Messenger!

      Worth following @BrightonArgus and @BrightonArgusJo to see how they do it: a one-way, autogenerated RSS feed for the news, that doesn't follow anyone, with links in its biog to the individual journalists' Twitter feeds; these individual accounts are used more informally by writers to gather ideas and info and occasionally promote the stories that individual journalists are writing.

      By simply using Twitter every day to interact with each other and local people, the profile for the main Argus news feed naturally gets picked up by people who find it useful.

      I know resource is a major issue for all newsrooms, but I think the Argus generates a lot of attention, some goodwill - and even a few stories - with this approach.Sep 24, 2009 05:28 pm

    • KM Group

      Interesting piece and valid comments. Sorry we didn't get back to you. Unfortunately we do have very limited resources and had initially been using Twitter as a one-way tool for sharing our news stories. In getting started on Twitter we had chosen to use an autofollow tool but we are revising the strategy. This was why our numbers dramatically changed. We are no longer using this tool. As a community media company we understand that on a site such as Twitter we need to engage with our audience and will be making an effort to reply to comments more directly in future. Sep 24, 2009 03:31 pm

    • Charlie Peverett

      @Kent_Messenger has just started following me again. Hoping it'll lead to something special this time around... Though I seem to be the only one they're following at the moment. That's a bit TOO special, isn't it?Sep 24, 2009 03:00 pm

    • Charlie Peverett

      One of the less discussed aspects of corporate use of Twitter is the necessity of warmth. I don't mind if a corporate account follows me in response to something I've tweeted, but I expect it to be contextual, and the relationship (however thin) to be two-way.

      So for example, when I tweeted the word 'hayfever' earlier this summer and was swiftly followed by a well-known tissue brand supposedly monitoring the severity and spread of hayfever in the UK, I was amused. They hadn't actually read my tweet - I'd talked about someone else sneezing, not me - but I took their follow as an invitation to help them track snot nationwide.   

      Offensive? Hardly. Just a bit clumsy. But all could have been turned to the good if someone on their end had picked up on my subsequent teasing tweets and said "it's a fair cop, this is a cheeky way to promote ourselves - hope you don't mind". I would have loved that - and a simple look at my profile (revealing that I work for a marketing company myself) would probably have been enough to work that out.

      I guess a lot of it simply comes down to time. If you're going to use any of these platforms, do you have the time to use them properly? On Twitter, that means listening - and responding personally if your robots ruffle any feathers.  Sep 6, 2009 10:07 pm

    • Antony Mayfield

      You know it is fine line. Anyone should be able to follow anyone, but auto-*anything* other than searching/listening aids are a bit shabby in Twitter at the moment. they miss the point, the potential of the medium.

      Better connected brands (that is to say, ones that care about learning to do best by their networks) will search for keywords and read posts of anyone who mentions them or keywords, but only follow those that they are interested in.

      Wiggle, the online bike shop, followed me after I mentioned something mtb related. To be honest i didn't mind, and I even followed their decent Twitter feed afterwards. The "* * I learned to be an investor maverick * *" guy who auto-followed me after I mentioned a market-related story is a spammer IMO.

      i think we're still negotiating what it means to be on Twitter ourselves, exploring an emerging etiquette. So are brands. But when what they do stinks, just as when anyone does, we should point it out.

      Sep 6, 2009 05:21 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Shameless indeed! And pretty stupid too. Compare with the way that the Brighton Argus has completely embraced Twitter to form new connections with the local community - and source stories.

      I've got a question for all re: Twitter - does a brand have the right to promote their product of service to you via Twitter if

      a) you aren't following them and they aren't following you
      b) they've spotted the sales opportunity via a general Twitter search for certain key words


      I Tweet a lot about my new hobby - dressmaking. Several sewing-related Twitterers have followed me and some I've followed back because they're tweeting interesting stuff and I am keen to find cheaper ways to buy fabric, patterns etc. So I'm happy to choose to subscribe to their feed and see their promotions (from time to time). However some sewing Twitterers have just @ messaged me directly with offers and deals as soon as I've talked about sewing. To me this feels like an intrusion. I wasn't talking to them.

      I know that some people will think I'm being slightly wet behind the ears here - I don't protect my updates, so in theory when I Tweet I'm talking to everyone on Twitter. So can I complain if marketers pick up on my need to buy sewing patterns and tweet deals at me? Perhaps I should protect my updates?

      I'm interested in hearing what other people think.Sep 4, 2009 12:32 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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