Customizing your social experience: The great reciprocal follow debate

Social networks as we know them today have led to various people generating a host of rules and guidelines, hoping others take heed and follow. One of the biggest areas of differing views is reciprocal following. It's a conversation I've had many times and I always encourage people not to pay attention to people who don't follow back or who unfollow them. We each use social tools in the way that works for our individual needs, so what I want out of it doesn't necessarily fit what you want out of it. But that doesn't mean I won't find value in your content even if you don't find value in mine. We have different and varied interests. Some are open to hearing about things they aren't interested in, others aren't. But there are some facets to Twitter and Facebook following that regularly result in hurt feelings or bring personal insecurities to the surface.

Expected Reciprocity - Twitter

I watch who follows/unfollows me on Twitter using Birdbrain (iPhone app), which tells me who has followed (this I pay attention to) and unfollowed (this I glance at in passing) since I last logged in. I also get to see who I follow that doesn't follow me back and vice versa (rarely use these features). What's truly valuable to me is other useful stats like number of mentions, retweets and status updates. I make mental notes of my personal stats and sometimes adjust what and how I'm tweeting to be more engaging. I'm not bothered in the least by seeing people unfollow me. In fact, I have been followed by 403 and unfollowed by 256 in the last 30 days for a net follower gain of just 147. Well over 50% of my followers (a fair number are spammy accounts) do not stick around. Why is that?

Because I didn't follow them back. Perhaps that's not true for all of them, but I strongly believe it's true for the majority. They followed me expecting that I would reciprocate and I don't do that unless I'm interested in their content or they fit into my personal parameters of people I want to follow back. I can't tell you how many times I've been followed, unfollowed and re-followed to get my attention. I don't get annoyed by it; it's a silly game that doesn't work. There's even a #TeamFollowBack movement. The people involved often have astronomical numbers of followers and I refuse to follow them. (They don't fit my parameters anyway.)

Forced Reciprocity - Facebook

Recently, someone I "know" from twitter (not really well) though we have met in person twice now, popped into my Friend Suggestions on Facebook. I decided to send a Friend Request, which I rarely do. I prefer to let others make the request rather than put someone on the spot. This person and I have dozens of mutual friends. In reply to my request, I received a note that said - very politely - that their Facebook profile was for family and friends and they'd love for me to join them on their page. Let me tell you, the note I got was a lot nicer than someone saying "I'm just not that into you." But that's how people sometimes take it.

I've since had a conversation with this person about it because I had a question that was related and it came up that not everyone is understanding of their stance. I can't say I was surprised to learn that. Not friending or following people (or unfollowing) can result in some embarrassing situations when the reaction is negative. This person I was discussing this with puts clear boundaries on their social involvement that only become awkward because we don't like to say no to people for fear of their reaction. But what they did was not inappropriate or meant to hurt. And I won't say who it was (not even if you private message me :)) because I don't want this person to be looked at differently for their choices - choices that I respect. Haven't we all been in that position before?

Here's the reality:

I could choose to mutually follow everyone who follows me, but it wouldn't be true following. In many ways I don't truly follow all the people on my social networks anyway - more than a couple hundred makes it hard. Certain names or avatars jump out at me as I scroll through my timeline and I slam on the brakes to go back and see what these people say. I do make a point to look for tweets from people I don't know well and respond to them so I don't get insulated and miss out on getting to know as many amazing people as possible - even if our interactions take place only once or twice.

I remember being amazed when I saw Chris Brogan and Darren Rowse follow me way back whenever they did. And I have to say I got a twinge of sadness when they both recently unfollowed me. But I can't fault them for it and, honestly, followed or unfollowed I was lumped in with everyone else. They, like you, me and everyone else, are choosing to use the tools at their disposal in the best way they know how at any given time. They add value to my stream so I don't want to unfollow them, but if their stream is full of hundreds of thousands, where's the value for them?

As soon as you start following someone thinking they'll follow you back, your focus is on the wrong part of the social experience. As soon as your instinct is to "call someone out" for unfollowing, you're perspective needs adjustment. Social media following choices are a seemingly selfish act. You essentially ask the question, "What's in this user's stream for me?" The decision not to follow isn't a reflection of the person behind the tweets, it's a choice made entirely to customize the experience.