The Evils of Reciprocal Following on Twitter

Posted on March 17th 2010

“Reciprocal following” is when you follow the people who follow you on Twitter. Sounds harmless, even nice. But don't be fooled. Many problems are caused by this practise. Reciprocal following should be discontinued — here's why.

Don't confuse your “followers” (those who have chosen to follow you) with those that you are “following.” They are two different groups of Twitter users that are associated with your Twitter account.

You should follow other Twitter users that you find interesting. The tweets from these people show up in your timeline (your Twitter feed). They should be users that provide you with information, entertainment, dialogue or whatever it is that you find interesting about them.

If you tweet about things that others find interesting, then others will find you and follow you. It's really that simple. Over time you should build up a loyal following of users who are interested in what you have to say.

However, it all breaks down and new problems occur if you start reciprocal following.

Problem # 1 — Your Timeline

When you start manually following those that follow you, or worse yet, use a script or online service to automatically follow everyone who follows you, you immediately pollute your timeline with all the miscellaneous, unfocused topics and trivia from the gang of people who found your tweets interesting. But does that mean that you will find their tweets of value to you? All of their subject areas and personal commentaries? I don't think so.

Now your timeline is overflowing with reams of chatter “all over the map” and tweets from the previously hand-picked people who you had chosen to follow are now all mixed in with tweets from this bunch of people from all walks of life. You've lost control of your timeline. Now you need to start putting your hand-picked users into lists or groups in your apps, or somehow filtering your timeline so that you can get back to the tweets from the people who you want to follow, who you want to read about. But wait, that's what you had before you started reciprocal following. Hmmm….

Problem # 2 — Auto-DM Spam

You start getting auto-DM messages from many of these people that you reciprocal followed. Direct Messages (DM's) are Twitter's private messages between Twitter users. But you can only send a DM to another user, or receive one, if you are both following each other — if you both find each other's tweets of interest.

However, online services have started to crop up that will send automatic DM's to people after you initially follow them (e.g. “thanks for following me!”), and after you tweet certain things, and after you reply to one of their tweets, and at timed intervals, and for a variety of reasons.

It's a two step process: They start by using online services that will automatically follow as many people as they can, anyone, not because they are interested in those people, but because they are hoping that some of these people will reciprocal follow them back — so they can then go to step two and auto-DM them! These auto-DM's are usually very self-serving, spammy, contain links, pitches, and are extremely annoying after awhile, and you have no way of turning them off other than to unfollow those people. Of course, if you hadn't reciprocal followed them in the first place, you would not be receiving these crazy spam DM messages at all.

Problem # 3 — Phishing Attacks

In the last few weeks, Twitter users have been hit by a large number of phishing scams. They involve a DM from a hacked Twitter account to you saying something like “Is this a picture of you? <link>” or some other hook comment and a link. Always a link. The link takes you to what looks like a Twitter login page, but it is a page on the hacker's site. When you enter your account login info, then the hacker's program breaks into your Twitter account and uses it to send the same scam to all of your contacts using more DM's.

But wait, you would not have been able to receive any of those phishing DM scam messages if you hadn't reciprocal followed all of those people (since you both need to be following each other to be able to send or receive a DM). And further, if your Twitter account ever becomes hacked for any reason, the hacker would not be able to use your account to DM your contacts if you hadn't reciprocal followed all of them. So a double benefit of not receiving and not spreading Twitter-based phishing attacks if you don't reciprocal follow.

Problem # 4 — Malware Attacks

A variation on Problem # 3 is the spreading of malware via a download link which is spread by DM messages using hacked Twitter accounts. As in the above, you would almost eliminate the ability to receive such DM messages from hacked followers if you are not reciprocal following, and also your account (if ever hacked) would not be able to spread any such malware to all of your followers if you are not reciprocal following.

Summary

So let's see. We can reciprocal follow all of the people who follow us: it is nice for them and it's a practice that used to be done in the very early years of Twitter usage when there weren't many people using Twitter. However, with the tens of millions of users on Twitter now, and:

  • all of the online services sending marketing spam
  • services providing countless and useless mass followers (who are not interested in you)
  • services that do automatic mass reciprocal following for you
  • automatic tweeting of marketing messages by renting out your account for a few bucks (aka “sponsored tweets”)
  • the proliferation of annoying, machine-generated auto-DM messages
  • the phishing scams and malware being spread by DM's, and
  • the pollution of your timeline with a very low signal-to-noise ratio of meaningless trivia overpowering the occasional helpful tweet

It is long overdue to stop the ancient practice of reciprocal following that now only seems to generate useless, time-wasting noise, scams and malware to the ultimate benefit of mostly nefarious practitioners.

Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments.

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Comments

DavinaKBrewer
Posted on March 17th 2010 at 9:51PM
Phishing and spam attacks aside, I do follow many of my followers back. I do it all manually, use tools like Mr.  Tweet to check their "numbers," and review their Twitter streams to see: how often they tweet, about what, how much they share links or participate in conversations. It takes a little more time, but helps me find new people. I still of course get the auto-DM with the link to their crap, which gets them an immediate unfollow, but that's just part of it.
DougBraun
Posted on March 19th 2010 at 12:47PM

Thanks to Davina K Brewer, edvarcl and Roy Wells for your feedback and info about how each of you manually, selectively or otherwise do or don’t do follow backs and/or filter your timeline. It is interesting to see how others are dealing with some of these issues.

I note that most of you commented above prevention of the “polution” of your timeline as the reason why you don’t want to follow uninteresting people (focusing on this more immediate and ongoing issue), as opposed to trying to avoid the risks that can come from DM’s when you are both following each other. Ok.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (more ideas are still welcome)

ChrisNewham
Posted on March 22nd 2010 at 4:37PM
I agree pollution of your timeline is the biggest problem for me yes lists solve the problem but I have to keep remembering to put people onto the lists and very soon you have lots of lists to manage.

What I also dislike is random re-tweets I follow somebody because of the area they operate in and the interesting tweets they put out then suddenly one day they have a brain fart and start re-tweeting everything they see stuff that's not related to the reason I followed them in the first place. Instant un-follow. Yes you can prevent re-tweets showing from specific people but that's something else to remember to do.

AjmalAbbasi
Posted on April 6th 2010 at 12:01PM
Thanks for letting me know about the problems of reciprocal following. In fact I am also one of those stupids who always did so. But yes, now I will be taking care of and will not do it any more.

http://www.hospitaldoctorsqueensland.com.au