On Twitter, if you follow back reflexively, the spammers win

Are you among those who believe that if you don’t follow someone back on Twitter, you’re being snobby and arrogant?  Then this post is meant for you. My purpose here, quite candidly, is to persuade you that reflexively following someone back is not only a habit which encourages spam, but is in fact a major contributor to making Twitter a thriving spam platform.

For those who reflexively follow, in other words, I ask you to consider the ramifications of your behavior to the greater community, especially when multiplied by the thousands or millions of Twitterers who may behave likewise. Basically, you’re helping the spammers win.

First, let’s think about this: why does anyone follow anyone else on Twitter?  Three main reasons come to mind:

  1. The follower believes that the person he’s following has interesting things to say, and wants to read those interesting things;
  2. The follower is hoping that the person he’s following will follow him back, for one or more of the following reasons:
  • so that the follower’s count will increase
  • so that the follower’s messages will then have broader distribution/marketing power
  • so that the follower can send Direct Messages (DMs) to that person for even greater exposure and attention.
  1. The follower is reciprocating being followed, out of politeness, sense of obligation, or idealism. Often, there’s a belief that following back will “strengthen the relationship.” You can “transform them into a fan with your valuable tweets“! Or so goes the claim.

I’m arguing here that the first of these behaviors is useful, the second describes spammers and marketers above all, and the third is a well-intended but unfortunate fulfillment of the spammer’s hope, one which encourages their continued activity.

Reciprocal following by rote in many cases does little to further a relationship.  Remember that they call Twitter “asymmetrical”.  Let’s use myself as an example.  I tweet about a fairly narrow range of topics, basically: IT management, cloud computing, and sometimes interesting or amusing industry or sociological matters.  I happen to have a broad list of other interests that I myself don’t typically tweet about but helps me pick whom I follow: literature, languages, music, politics, travel, theater, to name a few. I follow people solely for the first of my reasons listed above: because I want to read what they have to say. Again, it’s asymmetric: my reading interests are not the same as what I tweet about. Anyone who follows me simply because I followed them (i.e., behavior #3) may be taken aback by how uninteresting my tweets are to them.

Let’s look more closely at what happens when I’m followed by people who are unlikely to be interested in the content of my tweets.  If you watch closely, you’ll notice that you are often followed by entities (read: marketers and spammers) because of a keyword contained in something you’ve tweeted.

Just to give some examples: recently, I’ve been followed by:

  • @HerbiesHeadshop, because I happened to use the phrase “down in the weeds” in a tweet;
  • @BuilderPal, because I wrote and tweeted about what I call “roof projects” in the context of information technology;
  • @proxyserver, because I happened to use the term “proxy server” in a tweet.

I’m not interested in any of the services these people provide, so I have no reason to follow them back. But more important: I’d argue that none of the above entities is remotely interested in my tweets. As a matter of fact, I am fairly certain that none of the above entities, or actually anyone who follows people as a result of keywords harvested from the Twitstream, is even reading my tweets, let alone anybody else’s. They just want to be followed back, so that I will then be more likely to read their tweets. They are using Twitter as a means to one end: marketing their services. Advertising. Exposure. Page views. And so they target (however clumsily) people they believe are interested in the products they provide. It’s kind of a new (and cheap) way of generating a targeted email address list.

Let me say it again: people who follow you using behavior #2 usually have NO interest in your tweets and in most cases aren’t reading anyone’s tweets at all. You are just a means to an end.  It’s not about you, it’s about them. If you’re laboring under the illusion that following someone who follows you is a way of strengthening the relationship, you should recognize that that strength is quite often going to be one-way only.

I could, of course, simply ignore any of these follows; most of them will eventually unfollow me anyway, not because of the content of my tweets (remember, they’re not even looking at these), but simply because I didn’t bite: I didn’t follow them back. I didn’t help them meet the sole objective they had in following me in the first place.

How do the spammers win? Spammers really only have an audience on Twitter if people follow them. More followers mean higher positions in search results for their pages and products. Most notably, following a spammer gives them the ability to Direct Message you, which increases the likelihood you’ll see and read their message and click on their links. And let’s be clear: the only reason people follow spammers is this strange perceived obligation that’s arisen on Twitter: follow everyone back who follows you; “it’s only polite,” after all, or it’s “snobby and arrogant” not to. When you succumb to that perceived obligation, the spammers win. If no one followed back, the spammers would go away.

It’s easy to turn behavior #3 (reflexive following) into behavior #1 (following because you’re interested in the person’s tweets): before you follow someone back, simply review the last 10 tweets the person has sent, which turn out to be astonishingly predictive of whether they’re a spammer.

You’re obviously welcome to use Twitter as you please and follow people for any or no reason. But consider the points I’ve made, in terms of the impact on the Twitter community of your actions.  And if you follow reflexively, don’t ever complain about getting spam DMs, because it’s your behavior that got you into that position.

Use Twitter for education, conversation, and interaction. It’s really the only thing it’s there for (other than providing rife subject matter for TechCrunch articles). Unless, of course, you’re a spammer.



  1. Peter,

    This is of course exactly the right thinking, but I’m almost shocked that people auto-follow in the first case. Generally before I follow anyone I read their last 40 tweets pretending they are in my feed and seeing if I’d be interested.

    I then carefully prune people from being followed if I find their content outside my area of interest on an ongoing basis–again its no vote on their social value to me–as I think some in your above scenario confuse it to be.

    Perhaps all of this relates back to the myspace/FB friend phenomena where its more about a mutual interest in adding friends than content? But this is confusing to me as the whole reason to use twitter instead of FB is how wonderfully content rich and content driven it is…so I’ll admit it, I’m not your target person for this piece, and I’ll echo your sentiments and encourage everyone to focus on the value of content on twitter instead of a vague sense of social obligation to be popular and fair to all.


  2. Good points, I have been following fewer and fewer people back. One of my prime requirements is that they are someone who interacts, I too review their last 10 or more tweets, mainly to see if they do interact. I agree, following back spammers only gives them more power and visibility. I probably should take the extra step and block them also, but have been using the method of them eventually unfollowing me if I don’t follow them back.

  3. Of course.

    I get E-Mail notifications when I get a new follower. Occasionally I reciprocate, but only if a review of that person’s posts looks interesting. I don’t care how many people follow me — that number is totally unimportant to me.

    I don’t often unfollow someone, but did so after a recent exchange that didn’t sit well with me. No great loss.

  4. Peter Kretzman says:

    James, Roger, Alex: it’s gratifying to hear from all of you how you emphasize the interaction aspect of Twitter when choosing whom to follow! When I write a post like this one, with lots of negative examples, it’s easy to forget that a lot of folks out there are NOT falling prey to the kind of reflexive following I’m writing about.

    I didn’t go into further anti-spam actions, but I definitely encourage unfollowing AND blocking spammers at every juncture, whenever you have time and energy. It’s like urban graffiti: if you don’t paint over the graffiti immediately, it just creates an environment where you’ll get more.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. I have to put myself into the supportive camp as well. As a more recent Twitter user … I found myself quickly looking at my follower’s recent tweets in order to determine if they would be a source of interesting content or more distractions/alternative motivations.

  6. Good post.
    I too have been following fewer and fewer people back recently. I try to follow people that have meaningful things to tweet about. I have been recently bombarded by spammers and find myself blocking them and pruning my follow list weekly.

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