It seems that we, as human beings, are facinated by numbers. I’m not talking about a mathematical fascination although many people do find numbers interesting of themselves. No, what I’m talking about is a facination with quantities, statistics and measurements. We use numbers to express value, make comparisons and to rank things, including ourselves.
This tendancy spills over into almost every thing that we do and it is apparent that Twitter is no exception. Almost every day we will see tweets about follow numbers (or unfollow numbers), rankings and statistics. What do all these numbers really mean and where do they come from?
I’m fairly new to Twitter, but one thing that I have noticed in my few months of following and tweeting is that many people are confused about the numbers and some of the activities that take place around them. So let’s take a few minutes and see if we can understand some of what is going on.
Follow Me, Follow You
There are two very important numbers in Twitter that often give rise to confusion. The first is Following which counts how many people you are listening to. The other number is Followers. This counts how many people are listening to you.
When you visit the Profile page of a user you will see both of these numbers listed (as well as Updates which we’ll talk about later). You can even list the followers and follows for the person if you are interested. These numbers can give you a good indication of the popularity of a person and the value of their tweets.
Since Twitter is an opt-in service, a high number of followers will usually indicate that the person is providing content worth following. It may not necessarily be interesting to you but that is only something that you can decide by looking at their tweets over time. If you see recent updates on their profile that you like then it is worth following them for a time to see what they say. You can always unfollow later if you don’t like what you see.
When you see someone with a high number of follows it is usually an indication of someone that is very social and who likes to engage with other people. It means that they are open to tweets, replies and direct messages from a large group. You will often see that their recent updates are full of replies to others as well. They use Twitter to have conversations.
Having a high follow count does not mean that they are reading every tweet that comes their way. Some have follow counts that are in the 10’s of thousands and it just isn’t possible to read all the tweets that flows in their Twitter stream. It is likely that they are closely following a few good friends with and answering replies and direct messages. They will occasionally fish for nuggets in the general stream as time allows.
While the above observations are true in most cases, you will find some people with large follow counts who don’t actually read tweets of the people they follow. They are only following people to take advantage of the large number of people in Twitter who automatically follow back. It allows them to build their audience. These people are not interested in conversation. Rather they are interested in broadcasting.
Twitter Rules for Following
Twitter has set in place rules for following to reduce the amount of abuse in the system. These rules may change as Twitter evolves.
There are no limits on the number of followers that you can have. If you are popular then this number may rise much higher than the number of people you follow. Most popular people on Twitter will follow pretty much everyone who follows them but there is no requirement to do so. There are a couple important reasons for for them to do this.
- It is polite — Twitter is about conversation.
- You cannot receive a direct message from someone unless you are following them.
- They may also check their Twitter stream periodically or serach for specific keywords. They might find something of interest in what you say.
You may follow up to 2,000 people without any restrictions. However, if you want to follow more than that, you need to have enough followers so that the ration of follows/followers does not exceed 1.1 (or 110%). That means that if you have 4,000 followers you may follow as many as 4,400. If you have 10,000 followers you can follow up to 11,000.
The Follow/Unfollow Mystery Explained(?)
One of the great mysteries that has appeared in Twitter recently is the Follow/Unfollow mystery. I believe that there is a reasonable explanation for this.
Since most people will follow anyone who follows them, someone who wants a big following need only follow lots of people to get more followers. Generally speaking, some of them will unfollow fairly quickly once they see the lack of quality tweeting but many will stick with it for various reasons. This part of the equation is easy to understand.
The unfollow is the mysterious part. On the surface, there seems to be no reason for unfollowing if you want to increase your own following. However, if they only have 2,000 followers they cannot exceed 2,200 follows. In order to make room for a bigger following they must unfollow some to make room for new follows.
For example, if they are following 2,000 and get 1,500 followers out of that they cannot use more follows to grow since their limit would be 2,000 (110% of 1,500 is only 1,650 so they’re stuck with the 2,000 limit). However, if they unfollow 1,500 they can now follow 1,500 more people and hopefully garner another 1,000 or more followers.
At 2,500 followers they are now able to follow up to 2,750. If they unfollow until they are down to 500 again, they can add 2,250 new follows this time and get more followers. The cycle will repeat until they get the following that they want.
I believe that people are setting up what I call ghost followers. These are accounts that are designed to increase the following of a user or group of users. If they set up several thousand accounts and have them all follow their main account then they have a solid base of followers that they won’t lose that allows them to increase their follow/unfollow cycles.
I suspect that this kind of behaviour (or something similar) has been behind the recent Twitter cleanup in which people lost large groups of followers.
Updates is the third number that you will find on your profile page. This is simply a count of how many Tweets you have made since you signed up for your account. It is usually a good indicator of how active you are on Twitter. When combined with the age of your Twitter account it gives potential followers an idea of what they can expect from you.
While the number of tweets you make on your account don’t tell us whether you have interesting information to follow or not, it is a good indication of your involvement. There are several different types of tweets that are all included in this one number. This includes replies (@someone) and retweets (RT or via) as well as open tweets. Direct Messages (D) are not included.
Twitter Analysis — Beyond the Basics
Sometimes we want to know more about a person on Twitter than just these three numbers. That is where the 3rd party analysis tools come in to play. There are several different sites that you can use to see different stats and rankings to help you decide whether or not you want to follow someone — or just to see you you stack up against others.
Some Sites to Get You Started
There are new sites popping up on a regular basis that provide value additions to Twitter and several of them are providing more statistics for you to look at. To get you started here are three that I’ve used:
- Twitterholic is a site that ranks users based on their followers, friends, updates or time on Twitter. The default ranking is on followers. You can check out where you are in the rankings as well as looking at the top 100.
- TweetStats can track the average number of tweets that you (or another user) post. It will graphically show you how many tweet for each of the past 5 months (including the current) as well as breakdowns of the times and days that you tweet and who you sent the most replies to. You can also see a Tweet Cloud showing the most common words in your tweets.
- Web Analytics Demystified tries to get a better handle on the quality of a person’s tweeting. Rather than just looking at raw numbers, they also look at the number of interactions between a user and other Twitter users. This is an indication of involvement in the community. They look at the number of times that you post replies, retweets and tweets with links. It’s not perfect but it does give you a different picture than the raw numbers.
You can find more at TwiTip TweetStats.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There are a couple of interesting stats that I’d like to see made available someday. Maybe someone is working away at these right now or maybe someone will start soon.
- Friends in Common This was suggested by my Twitter friend @ggw_bach. Just enter two twitter id’s and the app would show the intersection of their friends. This could be broken down into common follows, common followers and common friends.
- Degrees of Twitter What this application would do is map out follows and followers of a given user’s friends out to a specified degree. It could even be designed to highlight those that you currently don’t follow so that you could check them out.
- Weighted Follower Rankings When looking at the number of people following you (or someone you’re thinking about following) it would be interesting to know how many of them are active or influential in Twitter. It could build on the statistics of a site like Web Analytics Demystified as described above. This might give a stronger indication of the perceived value of a user’s tweeting.
So, what do you think? What numbers do you think are important on Twitter? Which ones matter most to you? Which ones do you look at when choosing who to follow? Now is your chance to let the whole world know.