The Problem with Twitter – Social Disconnection by Stealth

tl;dr Twenty new Twitter followers in a week but a fall in our net position. Should social media sites allow users to end connections by stealth? Is Twitter the new watering hole for scammers and opportunists?


Before we begin, we need to make it clear we like Twitter. It has created a simple tool to connect millions of people. It has built a diverse network that has changed the way many of us communicate and opened up new possibilities for others. Various recent uprisings around the world have demonstrated the strength of mass electronic communication.

However one of our biggest gripes with Twitter is the following functionality, or more so the unfollowing functionality. We frequently receive follow email notifications telling us we have gained new followers. This is great however in the past few months we have lost our trust in these notifications.

This week we received approximately 20 new follower notifications. Awesome, new followers to interact with. In reality our net position fell. Many of these followers are no longer following us. Twitter is not alone here.

Why? What is going on here? Is being unable to break a social media connection by stealth a good thing?

Reasons for Breaking Up (Intentional or Unintentional)

Not all break ups may be intentional. However it feels like too many are trying to lure us in for a unbalanced relationship.

+ Spammers: Social media sites have been plagued by spam and dummy accounts looking to leverage large networks of followers. Twitter appears to be more aggressively pursuing such accounts and deactivating accounts as they appear. Therefore many new followers are likely very soon to become dormant.

+ Tools: With the increase of social media options, various tools have been made available to manage your accounts. Algorithms help you follow and unfollow other users, tailoring your network to your interests. The problem is that a button click may radically modify your network. In one click you start following 100 people, then in the next click you have mistakenly unfollowed the same 100 users.

+ Ratio: The desire may be for users looking to achieve the perfect ratio of “followers to followings”. They use a false connection request to lure in new followers, while unscrupulously maintaining a low following figure. This may have financial value for those looking to sell such accounts.

+ Mistake: Twitter makes it remarkably easy to follow/unfollow users (in error). It is not always clear that a single click on the “follow” button results in a follow.

+ Bugs: Users have reported problems with Twitter removing followers with their authorisation. Legitimate connections are being mysteriously broken.

+ Dislike: Obviously there will be cases where a user genuinely ends the relationship by intentionally unfollowing a user.

The combination of the above may be enough to explain the current high churn of new followers. Spammers have always remained in front of the curve. E-mail has got smarter and applications like Twitter are the next watering hole for ‘fake viagra peddlers’ and ‘Nigerian money scammers’.

Unfollowing in Stealth

The majority of social media sites alert you to when someone wants to make a new connection. However very few (if any) send you a notification of when that connection ends. This seems in contrast to the “making of a new connection” where there is complete transparency.

The current process:

1. Mike logs into account
2. Mike identifies Peter to connect with
3. Mike send a new connection request
3a. Sometimes Peter may need to authorise connection request
3b. Peter authorises connection
4. Mike notified of new connection
5. Mike breaks connection
6. No notification sent to Peter
7. Peter doesn’t know connection broken

Benefits of Stealth

It seems odd that the making of a connection are so open, however the closing of a connection are almost secret. What is the benefit to the network?

The clearest benefit seems to avoid social awkwardness for users. Generalising, the majority of humans wish to avoid conflict and by allowing discreet disconnection all parties can continue participating without the awkwardness. At least, until disconnected party realises they have been dumped.

From one angle it seems unreasonable to expect parties to authorise the break of the relationship. This may inadvertently increase the psychological barrier for creating new connections and reducing the effectiveness of the network. In contrast, many people are quick to rush into things even when implications are high (e.g. financial contracts with penalties for exiting). Attaching penalties on exit may not discourage users forming new connections.

Would building a social network based on full transparency mean a better community? Would penalising breaking connections be effective?

No Conclusions

There are various third party applications online to track your followers and unfollowers. It remains unknown if Twitter and others will enable this functionality within their own environments. For now we just need to accept that it is a better user experience to know about new connections…

Image Credit: Pluggio


You might also enjoy:
+ The Startup Dictionary – Learning the Lingo #3
+ Learning From Other Startups – 6 Real Life Stories
+ Startup Myths – I shall not be fooled again by gurus
+ The Bootstrap Challenge – Walking the Talk

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