The Tyranny of Twitter Stats

At South by Southwest Interactive last week, marketer Peter Shankman said “if you say you’re a social media expert, I’m going to check how many Twitter followers you have.” This is about as useful a metric as saying “if you say you’re a professional hockey player, I’m going to count how many hockey sticks you have.” It tells only a tiny fraction of the whole story.

Shankman’s comment got me wondering: how would Twitter be different if the service didn’t publish statistics about who you’re following and who’s following you? Because these numbers are public, we’re experiencing a kind of follower arms race, where heedless reciprocal following has become the norm and popularity and leader-board sites are de rigeur (I’m still working on getting my douchebag index into the nineties). One’s list of followers has become, for better or for worse, the new unweeded blogroll–messy, too long and polluted with hastily-exchanged links. This shouldn’t be a surprise: from box office revenue to Technorati ranking, if we can count it publicly, we will.

Several people have begun wondering about how our burgeoning networks will scale, and how its users will deal with the growing amount of signal.

If our Twitter numbers were private, wouldn’t we be more selective about who we followed? Wouldn’t we focus on forming a conversational network based on the quality of people we followed, instead of the number of people who followed us? Wouldn’t we emphasize meaningful discussion over the “top seller” mentality that seems to pervade the tool?

Grade Eight Gym Class

Greasemonkey Script for Hiding Twitter StatsIt took me years to start obsessing about the web stats for this site. I eventually learned to follow my friend Dave Olson’s advice to “fuck stats, make art”. Now I’m facing a similar grindstone with Twitter. The bloggy, social media world has always been a bit too much like high school. I thought we’d begun to grow out of that immaturity, but the tyranny of Twitter stats puts us right back in the sweaty locker room after grade eight gym class.

I was talking to my friend John Keyes about how I could reduce my compulsion to watch my Twitter stats. He was sympathetic, and whipped up a Greasemonkey script that simply hides the follower numbers from the tool’s web interface. It’s only as effective a mind hack as, say, setting your watch five minutes fast. However, it’s a little reminder to chill out and use Twitter the way I want to, instead of how the popularity-obsessed web demands that I do.

UPDATE: British writer and comedian Dave Gorman has a great post that touches on a similar topic:

But yesterday I had two people contact me to tell me that I was rude for not following them. How not-following someone can be rude is quite beyond me. So I asked. And their point was that they were following me and that it was therefore only polite for me to follow them back because unless I did that I wasn’t being interactive.

Which seems to me to be a false definition of what interactivity really is. In what way would clicking a button to say I was following someone be actually interacting with them? At the moment I follow between 200 and 300 people. When I log on I normally find there are between 10 and 20 posts for me to look at from the last 5 minutes of activity. But I’m followed by over 20,000 people. If I followed all of them, there would be a hundred times as many recent posts to review. There would be no way of me actually reading – or even meaningfully scanning – 1000 to 2000 posts every 5 minutes.

I especially like his conclusion:

The difference between following someone and replying to them is the difference between stopping to chat with someone in the street or giving them a badge declaring that you know them. One is actual interaction. The other is just something you can show your friends.


  1. Amen, brother. I propose Unfollow Fridays, whereupon you stop following people. I like trial balloons to see what folks are like on Twitter. But if I’m not into their stream after a week, it’s not on.

  2. Good points, Darren. As I said in my Net Tuesday talk, huge numbers always bring about the problem of how to be reciprocal and talk to people and engage.

    I used to be obsessed with stats, then WP screwed up my stats script and for 3 months I went without any stats and now I don’t care much. Same with Twitter. Actually I’m about to publish a post on the fact that no good can come from Qwitter.

  3. Good post, Darren. I saw a tweet recently that said “I don’t care if you’re God or Jesus; If someone follows you, you follow back.” It led me to wonder what my life would be like if every time someone talked on the bus, I talked back… or if every time someone ran a piece of advertising, I paid attention. It would be full of noise.

    It’s a funny problem – the amount of tweets I see complaining, or calling people to the carpet, about unfollowing makes me afraid of making the SocMed faux-pas… when, in fact, it would really just cut the static and make the conversation more relevant.

    That’s it Darren, I’m unfollowing you.

    Just kidding.

  4. I am happy to hear someone of your stature as a thoughtful blogger and commentator address this mania of collecting numbers/followers. With respect to the blog, I put a lot into my posts, and I hope people will read them and get something from them … so I like it when I see a little spike after I post, and I think it would be great if the spikes were a little bigger. So I’m trying to invest some time to increase the numbers. But Twitter, I think, is where you really see the numbers mania and I have become selective with who I follow. What I do care about is reaching the people I want to reach, and I have a lot to learn in this area.

    1. Indeed. The big difference between Twitter and the average blog is that your blog’s stats are private, so there’s less of that high school popularity contest at play.

  5. I think stats are particularly insidious in the male domain, where having the largest, fastest, bestest has always been an obsession. (Think of the books on sports stats – I have never seen a book on female-domain areas – such as which child-rearing technique has the most subscribers, or scrapbooking statistics that show one-upmanship.)

    Having said that, when it’s stats-obsessed clients that want numbers, it can get tedious. (They could hire Stephen Fry – he has huge numbers of followers!) It’s a little like the RFP process: if they make a decision based on the typical RFP, they’re probably not a company you want as a client. Likewise, if they’re making a decision based on your follower stats, they’re probably not the type of client you’ll be happy with; you want clients who appreciate quality, not quantity.

  6. So, following this logic, it is my unpopularity in high school that has made me predisposed to not follow back and have no qualms about unfollowing?

    Well, there’s a silver lining for ya.

  7. I find myself only looking at my blog stats very occasionally now, perhaps if there’s an unexpected spike in comments (usually some sort of Kottke-bomb or such).

    I don’t pay much attention to follower numbers on Twitter or Facebook either. And I’ve also turned off email notifications, so I don’t even know when I get a new follower. Thus, I don’t generally follow back unless someone @replies me or sends me a direct message, since I don’t know they’re there.

    And I do prune the list from time to time. Even if I like someone’s tweets, but they send them too often, or if I don’t find their stuff useful, out they go. Nothing personal (usually).

    I think I may be approaching these services differently than many other people.

  8. I think in part the stats obsession is about status, and in part it’s about extending a tired broadcast model of audience and demographics into the online world. In social networking, what matters is not number of followers, what matters is whether you are engaging with your community. It’s about engagement and influence, not racking up a high score. When I see someone who “follows” more than a couple hundred people on Twitter, I know they can’t possibly be engaging with them in much of a meaningful way. I just got followed by some “social research application” guy who follows over 8000 – to me that’s an immediate signal to click the block button, which I did.

  9. Glad to see this discussion. I’m very new to Twitter as an active participant after launching my blog.

    I’ve been feeling the pressure to reciprocate with followers but have held off. Wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do because I thought those I don’t follow may unfollow me – then I have few following = loser?

    Funny how we can’t escape popularity contests. I know of some who have bragged about how many LinkedIn or Facebooks friends they have on their blogs. Why do we let these things have strength? I decided I would only reciprocate follows if I would have come across their site/blog on my own and thought it was of value/importance/relevant to me and my life/work.

    Thanks for making me realize this is a better strategy in the end even though it will mean slower growth.

  10. After discussion about this article on FriendFeed, I decided to give the Greasemonkey script a go. Problem is that the Greasemonkey script does not work instantly, but only after the page has loaded. I could still see the stats for half a second or so.

    I whipped up this “user style” as a replacement.
    This one does work instantly.

    I think I’m gonna leave this style on. I don’t want to be influenced by numbers when judging whether to follow a person or not.

  11. If Shankman thinks that the number of Twitter followers a person has is a good metric from which to base someone’s abilities as a marketing consultant, then I think they get what they deserve.

    That said, at the time of this writing, there sure does seem to be a lot of people that are convinced it is a worthwhile metric. I suspect this will go away very soon when the rest of the world catches up to what “social media” really means (anyone else started to choke on that term?).

    This notion of how ‘not following back’ is somehow rude is just preposterous. Following someone does not automatically qualify you as “worth listening to.” You have to earn that.

    But it seems we all kinda agree here, which gives me hope for the future.

  12. Excellent article. I grew my followers organically, talk to people I am interested in and only follow information streams that are of interest. Whether I have 800 or 8000 followers / following what is important is that Twitter is a social media RESOURCE. Love the quotes too.

    If I buy the complete works of Shakespeare am I a playwright?

    @kdaly100 Follow me please 🙂

  13. I don’t think the follower/following counts need to be private so much as people need to concern themselves less with kissing everyone’s ass and only following people they actually give a shit about. This comes with self-esteem, which is often a rarity within social networks.

  14. (Found my way here via

    Twitter is not going to do away with its stats. It’s a big selling point for its service and how people can “value” others.

    While one’s followers is or can be a factor in others deciding if he/she should follow, most people know it’s not totally real. I have more than 1000 followers — and I know probably a couple hundred or more are spammy junk T accounts.

    I’ve started to block some, but often don’t want to take the time.

    If someone wants to focus on followers, fine. That number has a lot of articial intelligence in it. If you’re really serious about who to follow and checking influencers, there are other means to do it.

    Twitter isn’t going to drop its followers and follow stats, so stop asking. (Though, posts like these do make for good discussion!)

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