When big social media sites outline their strategies, Even the smallest details can have a huge impact on long term success. If you’re a privacy advocate, one of the first things you’ll have noticed about Twitter is that very little of your business is hidden from public display. If your account is public, everyone can see a full list of the accounts you’re following, and even if your account is, ahem… ‘protected’, everyone can still see a numerical total. The same applies to the total of accounts following you.
There’s nothing you or any other Twitter user can do to hide this information. And this is not some kind of oversight – it’s very deliberate. It looks at face value like a small and almost inconsequential detail, but Twitter knows that if your follower stats are displayed by force, you’ll probably feel significant pressure to compete with other users. No one wants to look inadequate or unpopular, but that’s exactly the perception it creates when you have very few followers. So the enforced display of follower totals is really a psychological tool on Twitter’s part. It means you’ll do what Twitter wants you to do, and work for attention. Twitter is effectively trying to embarrass you into working harder on the site. If Twitter users could simply hide their follower stats, many would do so, and then relax.
Twitter doesn’t want its users to relax – it wants them in a constant state of motivation. It wants them following other people, tweeting them, badgering influentials for attention – generally working like a dog in a bid to keep up appearances and look more popular. Status is an enormous motivator. If you could just hide your status, the need to do all that work would suddenly vanish, and millions of users would be wasting… sorry, spending a lot less time on Twitter.
But Twitter also faces counter-productive elements with this kind of regime. Essentially, in forcing every user to show their status, Twitter creates a rat race, and a rat race can quickly become a chore. If Twitter seems too much like hard work, it ceases to be a leisure activity, and the obvious implications of that are for many users or potential users to say: “Nah, you ain’t payin’ me – I’ve got better things to do with my time than relentlessly pester people.” Especially these days, when most users know that the bulk of their followers are purely a status symbol and are not reading a word they type, working excessively to gain those followers can quickly start to look like a waste of effort.
Twitter has evidently deemed that the number of people who are motivated by the rat race and see it as an enticing challenge, is greater than the number who see it as a chore – hence the visibility of follower stats being set in stone. But when it comes to the enforced display of accounts you’re following (as opposed to your followers), there’s an enormous extra negative to take into account. Whereas visible follower totals create an impetus to follow other users, visible following totals create an impetus to unfollow.
A full citation of the reasons for this would be a post in itself, but it’s a fact, and the evidence is blatant. Look at a site like WordPress.com, which does not display a following total, and you’ll see that follows are extremely solid. If you get a follower on WordPress, it’s almost certain they’ll still be following you in a year’s time – whether you remain active on the site or not. Why? Because there’s no pressure for them to unfollow.
Yes, it’s true that WordPress doesn’t have follow limits, and Twitter does – which means Twitter generates added pressure to unfollow. But most of the unfollowing on Twitter comes from accounts which are not remotely close to their follow limits. Predominantly, people unfollow to improve their follower/following ratio. Ultimately, they’re doing it to make themselves look more popular; to improve their status.
The deeply ingrained scourge of relentless unfollowing across Twitter is a very deflating facet of the experience. If I don’t use a Twitter account for a month, and then I go back to start using it again, my follower count will inevitably have dropped. With the exception of celebrities or other types of highly influential user with a recognised ‘real world’ profile, this happens to everyone. Stop ‘playing the game’ on Twitter, and your followers dwindle.
Of course, there’s an argument that Twitter doesn’t want you to stop using the site, so the drain on followers during periods of inactivity is all part of the motivation. But the constant unfollowing is still apparent even when you are using the site. Okay, so you’re often compensating for any losses with new followers when you’re an active user, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see you’re being unfollowed on a daily basis.
Constantly being unfollowed raises notions such as: “Is this really worth the bother?”, and “Are ANY of my followers really interested, or are they all just ‘on the churn?’. When I use Twitter, I get a sense of wasted effort that I just don’t get with WordPress. It would be silly to suggest that this is purely because people do unfollow on Twitter whlist they generally don’t on WordPress, but the psychological discomfort instilled by relentless unfollowing on Twitter, is a major part of the problem.
SO SHOULD TWITTER PERMIT THE HIDING OF FOLLOW COUNTS?
I believe this is both viable for Twitter and necessary. The actual total of accounts followed would be very straightforward to hide. It’s just a number. Obviously there would then be a debate about whether it should also be possible to hide the list of accounts followed. The realistic answer to this would be no. From a privacy standpoint, the answer would ideally of course be yes, but this is a social network with commercial needs, and being able to see who someone follows is useful as a guide for other account holders with similar interests. Realistically, Twitter is not going to permit the hiding of these lists. And in any case, unless Twitter were to permit the hiding of follower lists too, following lists could, at least in part, be ‘reverse deduced’ from the other end. Even hiding the list would not make it private.
So we’re really just talking about hiding a number. The grand total of Twitter accounts you’re following. Theoretically, someone could still go through your entire following list and manually count up the total. But are they going to bother? Of course not. Removing that number – the instant total of the accounts you’re following, would, in my opinion, remove a great deal of psychological pressure for Twitter users to unfollow.
Would third party apps not still be tempted to automatically count up following totals and display them? Well, yes, but the solution to that would be simple… Make it a privacy condition of API use that app builders do not display a following count unless the user permits it.
I’d go one step further and suggest that the following count should be hidden by default, with an option to unhide it in the settings. With far less psychological pressure on users to unfollow for status reasons, Twitter should see a significant drop in unfollowing, and that’s bound to be good for motivation, and good for business.