There’s a very widespread notion that unfollowing so-called ‘inactive’ Twitter users is a good way to help manage a follow ratio. We’re talking here about unfollowing users who actually follow you, I should stress – not the ones who don’t. The idea is that you use a management tool such as ManageFlitter to determine which of your followers have not tweeted for a long time, and then unfollow them, primarily on the basis that they’re not using the site, won’t notice you unfollowed them, and thus won’t unfollow back.
But there are several problems with this theory. Firstly, just because someone isn’t tweeting, it doesn’t mean they’ve stopped logging in and using the site. I can go weeks without tweeting on my accounts – as I write, it’s nearly six weeks since I conducted any visible activity on @JPEGJuice. But I read Twitter every day, and keep an eye on all my accounts. What’s more, I notice when my follower count drops, and I can see straight away through ManageFlitter who my unfollowers are. If I’m following them, am I going to click a single button to unfollow them back? Of course.
And I’m not alone. I’ve been able to confirm that many apparently inactive Twitter users do keep tabs on their status, and you might be surprised at how many continue to maintain their follow lists. One of the things we so easily overlook is the high incidence of users with multiple accounts. People don’t perhaps have the time or the content to keep tweeting on all of their accounts, but no one wants to be taken for a mug. They’re not knowingly going to continue following someone who’s unfollowed them on the sneak.
Secondly, even if a user’s lack of tweets really does indicate a genuine absence from the site, an absence is not necessarily permanent. There are many reasons why people might not use Twitter for a few months, but still return at a later date and become intensively active once more. Someone I’m following went inactive for about five months, but is now back posting numerous entertaining tweets a day. Entertaining in a sort of ‘car-crash-social-media’ sense, perhaps, but entertaining all the same.
Thirdly, what are you achieving by unfollowing an inactive account? If you’re up to your follow limit and have to unfollow users in order to progress, then unfollowing inactives may be necessary. But if you’re under no pressure to unfollow anyone, and you’re only doing it to lower your friend count, what’s the point? There’s no evidence to suggest that users with lower friend counts are inherently better thought of, and (assuming you’re not famous) if you take your friend count down too low, people will be more reluctant to follow you because they’ll assume you never follow back.
Twitter can imbue in us some very strange psychology, like the compulsion to unfollow good people for the sake of lowering a meaningless number. But over time I’ve become a lot more resistant to that mindset. Today there are some people on my inactives list I won’t unfollow, even though they appear to have left Twitter for good. I don’t really know them, I’ve never spoken to them… So why won’t I unfollow? Because I don’t need to.
Unfollowing is like throwing stuff away. If you need to recover the space, and the item isn’t currently in use, then fair enough. But if you have plenty of space and you still quite like the item, surely you’d keep it for the future, just in case, wouldn’t you?
I think the often recommended one-month cut-off is much too hasty to be breaking mutual follows on the basis of inactivity. I’d start to look more closely at accounts that haven’t tweeted for three months, but only if they were accounts with no redeeming features. And even then I wouldn’t automatically unfollow. I’d want to know the likelihood of them unfollowing back before going any further…
The key factors in assessing genuine inactivity centre around behavioural changes. What does that mean?… Well, let’s say I only tweet about once a month (which can be true). If I don’t tweet for 33 days, it’s not really anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t mean I’ve left Twitter. I’m just doing what I normally do, more or less. And yet many apps will class me as inactive and imply that it’s in users’ interests to unfollow me. Remember, even though I’m not tweeting, I’m still using Twitter and I’m still seeing my timelines. So if people unfollow me as inactive, and I unfollow them back (which I inevitably will), they may well be losing a real reader.
However, if I Tweet every day for six months, and then I suddenly don’t tweet for a month, there’s been a significant change in my behaviour. This type of scenario would typically indicate a problem. Maybe I’ve lost my password, maybe I’ve had an epiphany (“what a waste of time all this is”, etc), maybe I’ve moved to Instagram, maybe my lifestyle suddenly improved to the point where Twitter seemed instantly forgettable… Whatever.
One of the reasons ManageFlitter is a good tool is that it attributes a tweets-per-day average to each user, as well as denoting the age of each account. So at a glance, you can see who’s changed their behaviour. Someone with an average of 0.1 tweets per day, who hasn’t tweeted for a month, would not typically raise a “Hey – what’s going on here?” flag. However, someone with an average of 8 tweets per day, who hasn’t tweeted for three months, definitely would. There’s clearly been a change in behaviour, from very intensive use, to nothing at all.
Another major factor in whether a supposedly ‘inactive’ user might unfollow back is their follow ratio. The follow ratio (friends vs followers) is, in my opinion, a much better guide to who will or won’t unfollow back than any ‘inactivity’. If someone has more followers than friends, or roughly the same number of each, they’re much, much more likely to unfollow back than someone who has, say, two times more friends than followers.
Why’s that? Because people with equal numbers, or more followers than friends, have almost inevitably been managing their ratios. Unless you have a big profile elsewhere, you simply cannot get into that situation on Twitter without following a load of people and then unfollowing those who don’t follow back. So these account holders are used to unfollowing people. Are they going to stop that regime of unfollowing when they stop tweeting? Some will, some won’t. It depends why they stopped tweeting.
But conversely, people with, say, twice the number of friends as they have followers are very likely not managing their ratios. They’re not checking their lists to see who’s unfollowing them, so even if they’ve tweeted an hour ago, you may be able to unfollow them without them noticing or reciprocating. Indeed in my opinion, provided the user doesn’t know you personally, it’s safer to unfollow this type of account than it is to unfollow a one-month ‘inactive’ with an equal ratio.
Of course, there will be some users you just know aren’t coming back, and whom you really never wanted to follow in the first place. But don’t accept that you can confidently unfollow anyone who hasn’t tweeted for a month, without repercussion, because it’s simply not true.