The Truth About Social Media: Followers Are Not Your Friends

While I’m fighting writer’s block, this is a post from a friend of mine, Stephanie Bergman. She runs a blog that gets the occasional post. Stephanie has a few people in her twitter feed, and we have occasional conversations about social media. Something about meeting her at MySpace, and she’s working at an intriguing startup in SOMA.

Great post.

A couple of weeks ago, I started ranting a little over Twitter about followers and how people see them as friends. The rant began because someone I followed had posted a few messages about only wanting "quality followers" and asking everyone else to please stop following her. So I stopped following her.

To me, that's a crazy obnoxious egotistical statement. I mean, come on, who do you think you are? Do you really think Matt Lauer tells the Today Show audience that he only wants "quality viewers?"

Either this person didn't understand what followers really were, or was being a snot. Either way, I didn't care to see a whole slew of messages about it. I follow enough people that I have a fairly low tolerance before I unfollow people. It doesn't keep my follow count down like I wish it would, since I keep finding new people to follow, but I do try.

Anyway! Back to followers.

If someone has a public Twitter page, their data is available – to anyone – a number of ways. You can visit the website, you can subscribe to their RSS feed, or you can follow them. Their tweets also appear in the public feed (although there's a setting to turn that off), and are available through search.

What all of this means, is that you really don't know who's reading what you say. The only way to control this is by making your twitter feed private. Once you're private, you have approval over every person who can read.

I think most of the whining about "don't follow me" is over spammers more than real people, but that really makes no sense to me. Spammers rarely talk to you. I've gotten a number of @ messages from spammers, but they're not from people following me. In fact, I think the spammers unsubscribe once I don't follow back. It also seems like the same people who complain about spammers are those who try to get tons of followers. Spammers artificially inflate follower numbers – shouldn't they like that? If some person hawking viagra really wants to subscribe to my feed…have at it, I'm not interested anyway.

Most of the follow/unfollow behavior is automated. Mention one thing and suddenly a flood of people are following you. It's not like an actual dude who sells viagra is sitting at his computer staring at your tweets. But really, if you're uncomfortable with that idea, you should not have a public twitter feed.

I used the TV comparison above, but Twitter – to me – is best comparable to a blog. Some people read a blog by going to the webpage, others subscribe through RSS readers. Some blogs even end up syndicated to other places, on other blogs, to Facebook, all across the Internet. I don't know everyone who reads what I write, and there's no way I ever could. And that's ok.

I've talked before about how the tone of my blog changed when I went public, there's no denying that it did, significantly. It had to, for exactly the reasons stated here. I don't know who's reading what I'm writing. I'm the same with Twitter. No question that there are things I will not say on there.

But even I've said some things on there I shouldn't have. For example, I discovered a guy I follow (and who follows me) on twitter lives above me in my building. He seems to be cool and I'm not concerned, but it is spooky. I should never have said enough so he could figure out where I lived.

Facebook, on the other hand, grew as large as it did specifically because it was locked down to your friends. You did only have "quality" readers (if you're really going to be as obnoxious as to describe people as "quality"), since nobody could see what you wrote unless they were your friend. That, of course, is changing now, with Facebook making status messages more open. More and more people will now see what you say on Facebook, and you're going to have less control over that.

So the Internet's trending…again. We were all open, then we went all private, now we're all opening up again. It's easier to go from open to closed than from closed to open. People will be much more likely to make mistakes. Hell, I did, and I thought I was smarter than that.

I'm not sure how this is going to play out, but it will be fun to watch.

You can follow her here on Twitter.