The Twitter Numbers Game

twitter-numbers.jpgby Bill Nickerson (aka LoneWolf) from Howls, Cookie Crumbles and Ramblings (follow him @LoneWolfMuskoka).

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.

Followers

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.

Follows

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.

Followers

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.

Follows

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.

The Follow

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

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.

An Example

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.

Ghost Followers

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.

Tweet Nothings

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.

Comments

  • February 20, 2009

    Wow very rich information! Following you right now

    Thanks,
    Firas

  • February 20, 2009

    OK, this pretty much lays it all out there for folks.

    Thanks for explaining the 2000 rule. I didn’t know what the criteria was. Not that THATs a problem for me right now! ;-)

    George

  • February 20, 2009

    Excellent post, Bill.

    I try not to be all too concerned with numbers on Twitter, but if I were to think about the ones that matter most to me, I’d say the number of @ messages sent to me and sent from me, and the number of Retweets I receive.

    These figures should give a half decent image of how much conversation I’m taking part in, and how popular my Tweets are. At the end of the day, I want to give value and receive value, and “how many followers I have” doesn’t tell me anything about value.

    Thanks!

    Jamie

  • February 20, 2009

    First off, great information Bill. Thanks for putting this article together.

    Statistics are so addicting. And I admit that the first two I look at when I visit profiles are Following/Followers. After that I look at the last few tweets to try and get a feel.

    I also usually follow anybody that follows me and I generally don’t Unfollow unless I see a trend of tweets I’m just not interested in.

    I’d like to see a better Suggested Users application like the one you describe.

    I’m always interested in finding Twitterers that are more relevant to my worldview, but I’m also interested in connecting with others of a different worldview so I can broaden my perspective.

    Thanks again.

  • February 20, 2009

    I gained a great deal of knowledge from your post…thanks for the information. When deciding to follow someone, I do look at what their ratio of following to followers is, though now I know that can be artificial if they are playing with the numbers. I like to see something fairly even, though when it gets to the 10’s of thousands I wonder how they can seriously expect to interact with me.
    I am a little disturbed about “Ghost Followers”. I have heard about this several times in the last week. It seems rather vain to care enough about your numbers to actually make up followers!

  • February 20, 2009

    Went to tweet stats – I liked the Post cloud. Thanks for sharing.

    Beamer

  • February 20, 2009

    Well I have learnt a little bit more about the unfollowing rational now, I didn’t realise that this was in place and why people do it to manipulate their numbers.

    Personally I started out following everyone but I am refining that approach now so as to increase the value that Twitter can give me and ultimately I can give Twitter, after all that is teh name of the game in social media isn’t it?

  • February 20, 2009

    Great Post! A wealth of information in an understandable format. I really like the Friends in Common idea from ggw_bach. Do you know if anyone’s working on this?

  • February 20, 2009

    Twinfluence (http://twinfluence.com) already offers what I consider a critical measure – second order followers. That is, “reach”, or the number of people who follow those who follow me (or any other Twitter users).

    If 10 people follow me and every one of them has 11 followers, my reach/influence would be reported as 120 (10+10*11).

    While there can easily be double (or triple, or worse) counting in this statistic, it does a good job of giving a relative measure of someone’s credibility on the service. For example, the recent flood of fake accounts would not have built someone’s Twinfluence score much at all, as each of those fake accounts only had 1 or 2 followers, so adding 30,000 fake accounts with 1 follower each only increased someone’s Twinfluence score by 60,000 (30,000+30,000*1). You could increase your Twinfluence score about the same amount by just following Guy Kawasaki and having him follow you back.

    James

  • February 20, 2009

    The ‘Friends in Common’ tool you wished for already exists at http://whofollowswho.com/

  • February 20, 2009
    Bill Romanos
    @BILL_ROMANOS

    Excellent post. As I have a lot of followers and follow most of my followers, I use Google Reader and the RSS feed from each (selected) Twitterer’s profile from my favorite people I follow and often read them this way. This is a good method. I would also recommend using TweetDeck or a similar app. and set up groups or searches, if you want to focus on following a select few but already follow most of your followers. I am also thinking about setting up a separate Twitter account as a listening account where I would only follow say 500 core quality people. If you follow many people, you will have to use some of these tools in order to make sure you keep up with your favorite Twitterers that you follow.

  • February 20, 2009

    Ah- another great mystery put to rest. Not that I follow 2000 people – but now I know I’d better start caring about how many people FOLLOW me if that becomes my goal.

    Bart – thanks for the who follows who resource! FUN!

  • February 20, 2009

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments so far. I’ve been to the optometrist’s this morning and my eyes are finally getting back to normal enough for me to read again. Imagine my surprise when I find that this post is now up! I’m very excited for this opportunity [thanks again Darren].

    @Jamie that is the reason that Web Analytics Demystified has developed their site. They’re trying to find the quality measure although I doubt that is something that can be precisely calculated.

    @James and Bart — thanks for the tool updates. I’ll check them out for sure!

  • February 20, 2009

    By the way, Brooks Bane (@brooksbayne) has a post on the “Ghost Followers” (although he didn’t call them that). He and Jason Calacanis (@jasoncalacanis) have noticed this and done some research on it.

    The Newest Way to Game Twitter – Fake Followers

  • February 20, 2009

    I don’t pay much attention to the numbers. I started using twitter for the conversations. I am always scanning the tweets and often times find the most interesting links.

    Thanks for explaining the ratios.

  • February 20, 2009

    Wow, really nice article. Regarding the recent clean up, I suspect much of these was spam accounts, although ‘ghosting’ could fall under that, but I know of quite a few people who lost followers, but didn’t need to be creating ghosts (as they’re pretty genuine and great people to follow – so doubt it)

    I must say, it took me a while to get started in twitter, I considered joining for a good few weeks, but since I have, I’ve gotten more and more involved. I love the social aspect – people at your fingertips to talk with, engage with, get help from – it’s awesome!

    It will be great to see some of those suggested apps being developed – can’t have enough stats, i say! :) I just wish there was a better friend management tool – and a retweeter tool would be great too! :) thinking of doing something along those lines.. but it’s still all in my head only..

  • February 20, 2009

    Great and useful pots thnak you.

  • February 20, 2009

    Good suggestions on getting the most out of your follows Bill.

    As for the ghost followers following people who don’t need them, that is part of the equation. They “hide” amongst the Twitter giants so it doesn’t stand out so much — 5,000 people who only follow 1 person would stand out too much.

  • February 20, 2009

    I think it is critical to realize that different people use twitter differently. Many tweets reflect growing anger at the abuse but I think twitter is what one makes of it and not what one wants it to be.

  • February 20, 2009

    Nice informative post, especially for those new to Twitter. In regards to bulk following and then quickly un-following to improve your numbers, it seems like Twitter cracks down on those accounts pretty quickly. There really isn’t an “easy” method for gaining a lot of followers in the short-term without following a lot of others yourself (and keeping them to avoid a ban). That is unless you are famous :)

  • February 20, 2009
    Christian Lugo
    @christianlugo

    Well written friend!

    I am fairly new to twitter and often times I find what I have to say pointless since I only have 18 or so followers and I never seem to catch anyones eye! But nonetheless, I continue to post since I know this is a game that requires persistence and a sense of humor to become better at. I do enjoy posting because it makes that one or two random @ replies that much better!

    thanks again!

  • February 20, 2009

    This is a really interesting article, it has helped to explain points I had not really taken on board. I love twitter because is opens micro windows on the world and I hope long continues.

  • February 20, 2009

    The most useful post on Twitter I’ve read so far. Thanks for sharing all the info.

  • February 21, 2009

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments! I’m glad that my article has been helpful to people. I know that I struggled with some of this when I started out and there are still lots of things for me to learn.

    @Christian — my advice to you would be to find some of the “big guns” and follow them. Once I started following @chrisbrogan and @chrisgarrett I found a lot of people “found” me. I suspect many of them just wanted me to follow them, but I’ve found some good Twitter friends along the way. Keep up the posting.

  • February 21, 2009

    The follower/following ratio rule doesn’t seem to apply on @the_real_shaq case. He’s got 128,000+ followers while only following 380 twitterers.

    Nice, awesome post, by the way. thanks for all the info.

    Cheers.

  • February 21, 2009

    Hmm. I thought you were going to talk about mathematical twitter accounts like @random_nr. But this is a very good post as well….

  • February 22, 2009

    @Kent I used to get that rule confused in the same way that you did. It is actually the number of followers that limits the number you can follow, not the other way around. @the_real_shaq would be allowed to follow up to 140,800 based on 128,000 followers but he is only following 380. That is pretty common for celebrities who use Twitter more as a broadcast medium.

    @Willem I’ll have to check @random_nr out. If you know of other numerical follows then it would make a great post that TwiTip might be interested in for a guest post.

  • February 23, 2009

    Nice comprehensive post! The explanation of the “follow up to 1.1 X your followers” rule has been a bit of a secret for a while. It should help folks explain the patterns and dynamics of spam accounts and why they always seem to to be following 1800 to 2000 people and only have a couple of hundred auto follows.

    What’s been bothering me, is the when people take all of this follow pattern information and still try to game the system with superficial “chatty accounts”. They follow a bunch of people, then start replying to people with many followers so that it looks like they are actually having a conversation with them. I wrote a brief post on it on my blog (click my name link above to see it) .

  • February 23, 2009

    @Jesse — thanks for the comments. I checked out your post and it is some good advice. I’d recommend that the rest of you check it out. I think the more people on Twitter know how the spammers operate, the quicker spammers will die out. I think the opt-in nature of Twitter will make spamming too “expensive” for the results they get.

  • February 23, 2009

    Always find great tips, tools and advice from this blog…great post! I ♥ twitter!

  • February 23, 2009

    There is a vital element missing – risk aversion

    Just as you don’t play silly automated tricks with your primary branded money sites, think twice before you potentially tarnish your primary Twitter account.

    Certainly when I get followed by someone who I see has followed 2000, and only has 100 followers, joined that day, and very few updates, I just click away or worse, report as spam to @spam.

  • February 24, 2009

    Hi Patty. I’m glad that you enjoyed this post. I’m a fan of Twitter too and becoming more so every day.

    Andy’s comments on messing with your brand are well taken. Unfortunately, there is a group of people who aren’t interested in brand and they will take any means to get traffic for their purposes. I guess even .001% of millions of spam messages is worth it to them.

    Until there is no return or the cost of sending out the spam increases we’ll always have them around. At least Twitter allows us to opt-out and even block them. Marking them as spam is also useful.

  • February 25, 2009

    Nice explanation…thanks…
    In regard to the “2000 Twitter Follow Wall” many hit unexpectedly…..check out the group #need2000
    a place tweets can go help each other over that hurdle.

    I also found this site helpful when it was time to tidy things up.
    http://dossy.org/twitter/karma/

  • February 27, 2009

    Hi Jeri. Thanks for the good points.

    I’ve seen the dossy.org site a couple of times and I’m always leery of trying things that want my password — just bad karma if you’ll pardon the pun. I realize that the Twitter API makes it necessary right now though. Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to give it a go.

    As for the #need2000, I think people would be better served to find out who they’re following that isn’t following back and maybe trim that number. That way they could find a more meaningful group of people to follow, one’s that will interact. There are probably a number of inactive accounts that they’re following that they can unfollow.

    I don’t particularly like to follow people just so they have enough followers to get more. I’d rather follow people because they are interesting to me. That’s why I follow people who comment on my posts 8=)

  • February 28, 2009

    GREAT post and content rich. THIS is a great post for every person on twiitter to read. Thanks for sharing and for the content! LOTS of meat here and great insight.

  • February 5, 2010

    Thanks a ton for the info!!! great post!!!

  • February 5, 2010

    Hey Jess! Thanks for the props. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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