Riding the London underground yesterday morning, I overheard a conversation between two young women about how they use different social networks (which was fortuitous because I haven’t laid down a social marker longer than 140 characters in a couple of weeks).
“If two people I follow send more than 10 replies to each other I just think they should take it off Twitter. Put it on Facebook,” said the first.
“I just unfollow them if they clutter my timeline,” said her friend.
Retaining control over who we follow is an important part of the appeal of Twitter. Even the word ‘follow’ is, as tech writer Chris Baraniuk said to me on the site recently, “loaded with connotations of approval/discipleship”.
The metric driven nature of the site encourages us to impose rules on who we choose to follow (and take risks in what we choose to share).
The size of their following and follower:following ratio acts as a clear and visible symbol of status (Tumblr in contrast is designed for us to explore our identities: an evolving digital bedroom wall with popularity metrics relegated to the background).
The over-abundance of information and high regard in which we hold our attention (which digital naysayers would claim is a by-product of the declining inattention encouraged by our internet use in the first place) encourages us to feel it must be earned.
The ease of unfollowing someone on Twitter, the confirmation bias engendered by networks of interest and the sites which enable us to track who has unfollowed us lead us to determine our attention must, not only be valuable, but repeatedly earned by those we follow.
A single tweet we disagree with can be enough to trigger us to revoke our attention for good.
As Rob Horning highlighted in an essay for The New Inquiry, there’s also a jealousy invoked by “rivals in the medium” who we judge to be doing it better. The meta component built into social media encourages us to think about how we can make our own profiles better at the same time we read what others are sharing: we’re always alert “for techniques or ideas to borrow”.
The illusion of control is particularly important when someone we follow does not subsequently follow us back. The potential to click unfollow (and ease of doing so, in contrast to ending a friendship on Facebook) imbues it with the sense we can regain a parity of power in the (one-sided) relationship by terminating it.
It’s why we're more tolerant of the views of those who listen to us but always looking for reasons to hit the unfollow button when they don't.
We become frustrated they don't hold our views in the same regard and threaten to unfollow them if they express opinions we don’t agree with.
We'll also use tracking tools to passively-aggressively threaten our own followers with the removal of our attention if they chose to no longer subscribe to our views.
In contrast, though it serves no value, we’re keen to follow someone who promises to follow us back.
But to what purpose? To add a +1 to our list of followers in the misguided belief that it could be the tipping point which results in that all-important someone following us or the dream job we've carefully designed our profiles to attract.
As I said in the same conversation with Chris on Twitter, perhaps all we really need is an ‘observe’ button. But then the point of calling it a 'follow' button is to instil in users the perception the platform is perpetually useful and worthy of our continuing attention.