Twitter is the one of the top five most popular social networks in the world. Depending one your source, the microblogging platform comes in at either the number two or number four spot. The reason for its popularity is that the site logs an estimated 250,000,000 monthly unique visits, and that in turn represents a 22% penetration of the potential audience of Internet users. In the last year alone, Twitter saw a shocking 42% jump in active users, boosting the platform’s already impressive global reach.
In April, 2013, Twitter gained some negative press when a New York Times exposé described the underground pay-for-followers market. Italian security researchers and owners of the fake accounts described fake following as a multimillion dollar business. A number of recognizable brands were caught paying for fake followers and engaging in spammy autofollow practices. Three months after that embarrassing article was published, Twitter rolled out a number of upgrades and simultaneously officially banned the practice of autofollowing and third party services who offer to automatically follow accounts or pay for followers (also known as “get followers fast”).
The Reasons Behind the Ban
Follower numbers have long been a measure of personal or brand popularity on Twitter. Notable examples include celebrities like Justin Bieber (42.6 million followers), popular brands like YouTube (31.3 million followers), and Twitterati, also known as power users or social media influencers, like Sean Gardner (446,542 followers). The key to those followers is interest. In other words, just as the intent with Facebook friends is an existing mutual relationship, and the intent with LinkedIn connections is a mutual work interest, Twitter followers should be parties who are interested in participation in others in the Twitter sphere. If someone follows you, it’s because they want to see what you have to say in their daily feed (also known as a Timeline).
Autofollowing was perhaps once a quick way for new and upcoming users to quickly gain traction and credibility. In recent years, though, more and more people were able to gain followers that amounted to little more than robot accounts that paid no attention to the timelines of the accounts they followed. As some people complained, those automated accounts regularly tweeted nonsense and retweeted material from multiple accounts, which often resulted in “noisy” Twitter timelines and frustrated users.
Twitter stopped supporting their own native autofollow feature in 2009, citing privacy concerns and warning against disingenuous account activity. It concurrently promoted its official recommendations for building follower numbers. However, by using the Twitter developer API, many third-party websites and software companies continued to offer services that allowed accounts to sign up for automatic following back and bulk following.
Now, after being scrutinized by the New York Times and criticized by power users, Twitter has banned automated and bulk following outright. Users must now manually follow users back, rather than relying on automated third-party services. Automated tools, like autoposting, automatic direct messages, and unfollowing inactive users still exist, but a major source of annoyance and spam for Twitter users has now been eliminated. As Twitter said in their announcement, “we believe these changes will help provide a better experience for everyone using Twitter.”
Feedback on the Ban
Many of the opinions found in technology and social media blogs appear to agree with Twitter’s assurances of a better experience. While a few criticisms have been leveled at the catchall policy of prohibiting autofollowing, most of the opinions seem to be clearly in favor of the ban on autofollowing. A number of blogs even express appreciation that Twitter finally put the restrictions on these automated following services in place.
Some social media platforms like SocialOomph are understandably disappointed because all policy changes impact how they service their clients. However, longtime users admit they had stayed away from Twitter because their newsfeeds were overwhelming. Now, they say, Twitter seems more manageable and less intimidating.
In the Twittersphere, reactions seem to be either in favor of the ban or oblivious to it. #TeamFollowBack and #AutoFollow, two popular Twitter hashtags for identifying and soliciting automatic followers, still appear regularly in searches. It may be a while before the news gets out to everyone – especially the automated accounts.
Despite the banning of third-party autofollowing and pay-for-followers services, there are plenty of spam tactics left in the arsenal. Spammy services may include automated favoriting or retweeting of tweets and automated unfollowing of any account that does not follow back within a certain time frame. Another consistent annoyance are accounts that aggressively churn follow, quickly following and unfollowing multiple accounts several times in order to get attention. That practice is banned as well, but it still occurs.
Spammers are likely to find new and inventive ways to exploit the Twitter API. Similarly, paid social media services will continue to work within the framework of Twitter’s code in order to continue profiting from social media’s popularity. Some of the big losers from the recent ban are websites like TweetMogul, a service where a Twitter user could pay $9 for 500 followers.
Despite the ban on autofollowing, a number of tools and techniques remain to help users build a robust audience of followers. The main ingredient of social media success continues to be conscientious and intentional curating of feeds, and that includes followers. Most social media experts recommend users regularly post engaging content to increase visibility. A numbers of services offer tools to help Twitter users schedule tweets and find interesting posts to share with others.
Since Twitter remains one of the most open and accessible social networks, using the right combination of observation and creativity can quickly boost your follower numbers, too. Techniques recommended by Twitter include using their tools for finding and following your existing contacts, searching and following people with similar interests, and announcing your Twitter handle on other websites, social media platforms, email signatures, and business cards.
Through regular usage of the website and phone app, users can quickly identify and interact with potential followers. By finding, posting, favoriting, and retweeting interesting content, a user increases their visibility. By participating in active discussions, they maintain that visibility. In the search for more followers, visibility is key.
A Final Precaution
Even though Twitter now specifically prohibits third-party automated following services, they also remind users not to give out passwords and usernames to applications or websites that have not been thoroughly vetted. Automated following may be gone for good, but phishing and related social engineering scams remain alive and well. Tweet safely out there.