So... I've been genuinely enjoying Twitter. If I'm at my desk it's a pleasing distraction and a nice way of answering quick questions, um, quickly...
Of course I use it to follow other people too. Some are people I know. Some are people I'm a fan of. And some are people who I've discovered since I've been on twitter.
But yesterday I had two people contact me to tell me that I was rude for not following them. How not-following someone can be rude is quite beyond me. So I asked. And their point was that they were following me and that it was therefore only polite for me to follow them back because unless I did that I wasn't being interactive.
Which seems to me to be a false definition of what interactivity really is. In what way would clicking a button to say I was following someone be actually interacting with them? At the moment I follow between 200 and 300 people. When I log on I normally find there are between 10 and 20 posts for me to look at from the last 5 minutes of activity. But I'm followed by over 20,000 people. If I followed all of them, there would be a hundred times as many recent posts to review. There would be no way of me actually reading - or even meaningfully scanning - 1000 to 2000 posts every 5 minutes.
And how would I find the posts from the 200+ people I've chosen to follow? Surely they'd be lost in the tidal wave of noise. The assumption that following is in some way polite seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of the Twitter interface. Asymmetry is built in to it. Which doesn't make it a one way street because, regardless of whether someone is actually following you, you're still able to send them a tweet.
I could choose to follow everyone who follows me. It might make some of them feel good in the short term. But surely it would be apparent that in such large numbers following is effectively meaningless... so it would be nothing more than a token, empty gesture... and what would the point of that be?
When I tried to explain that, some people got in touch and suggested that I could 'follow' everyone but use the filtering system of something like Tweetdeck to ferret out only the tweets from people I was actually interested in.
Which I think meant they were telling me they'd be happy if I pretended to follow them but then used technology to ignore them in favour of other people. What? So not only would they rather I pretended to follow them they wanted to explain to me how this dishonest artifice could easily be achieved.
The argument is that if I (or anyone else with a lot of followers) don't follow loads of people back then it's obvious that my use of Twitter is purely selfish and self-promotional. I think they've got that completely arse about tit. Twitter works in two ways. Obviously. 1) You send. 2) You receive.
If I follow so many people as to effectively make the receiving part unusable then I'm not being more interactive, I'm being less so because if receiving is rendered useless I'm effectively admitting that I'm only interested in using the send part of the equation. Wouldn't giving 20,000 people an essentially meaningless pat on the back and the false sense of being followed actually be more self-promotional than using the service to find the things you want to find?
Holy Moly - the unofficial, Official Gossip Kings of the UK - perpetuated the idea that following=interactivity today by publishing a top 40 list of "Celebrities who love themselves." Essentially they divided the number of people each sleb is following by the number of followers they had and the people with the biggest discrepancies were, in their view, the least interactive and therefore the biggest tools.
Now I reckon that a better measure of how interactive someone is, would be to see how much they, um, interact with people. Y'know... like actual interaction. Like, maybe replying to people. After all, any of the people who follow me are able to tweet me. And many do. Wouldn't answering those tweets be more, y'know, interactive than just pretending to be interested in them by nominally following them all? If you were at a party, would the most interactive person be the one with the largest number of numbers in their phone or the one who chatted with the most people?
As it goes there's a way of finding out how much people reply. There's a site called tweetstats.com that allows you to check it out. At time of writing I can tell you that I've replied to 77.34% of the tweets I've received and - at risk of sounding cliched, here's the graph to prove it.
Now Tweets arrive when I'm not online and I don't scroll back to see everything that's arrived in my absence so I reckon that's pretty interactive.
So how does Holy Moly compare? Well, as I enjoy Holy Moly I follow HolyMolyNews and I can tell you that at time of writing they have 4376 followers and they follow 3647 people. So they follow a whopping 83% as many people as follow them. But if you tweet them what chance do you have of getting a reply? Only 17.12% Which by my reckoning makes them woefully lacking in interactivity.
Now I don't have any axe to grind with Holy Moly - I often like what they do - but they're definitely wrong that the number of people you follow is any kind of meaningful metric as to how interactive you are on Twitter.
But back to the two correspondents who started this discussion with me. One of them had started a campaign to 'unfollow' people who didn't follow them back. And once you start a campaign it's very hard to back down. It's a proven scientific fact* that anyone who's painted a placard is unable to admit that they're wrong. So while I reasoned with the two of them (and indeed even in replying to them about the issue I was being more interactive than I would have been by agreeing to follow them) they maintained the argument.
After a while I decided it was obviously not going to be resolved to their satisfaction, that my @Replies list was being clogged up with tweets from two unhappy fans and that other, more friendly and rational questions were getting overlooked as a result of the attention they were getting. I also got the impression they were enjoying winding me - and others - up with their determined tweets. In other words, I thought they were trolling. So, as they were clearly not happy with me for not following them and their starting point had been to threaten to 'unfollow' me unless I complied and followed them I decided to make everyone's lives easier and block them.
Inevitably this wound them up more. One of them - a man in his 30s no less - decided that he now hated me and everything I'd ever done. He starting tweeting to the world that I was a paedophile. He vandalised at least one website to change the content to suggest I was a paedophile. 24 hours earlier he was a self-professed fan of mine who wanted me to follow him... and now he hates my face, my hair, my work, my clothes, my voice and everything I've ever done. He decided to complain to the BBC about me and suggested that writing to the Daily Mail to suggest I was a paedophile would be a fun idea. It's almost as if his opinion is made up on the spot because if he really does hate every single thing I've ever done and every fibre of my being I really can't imagine why he followed me in the first place or why he wanted me to follow him. If I'd followed him he'd think I was brilliant. But I didn't so I'm therefore the embodiment of everything evil and wrong in the world. Can't help thinking that the way he's reacted has rather proved me right though.
I'm being glib. Now. Last night it was genuinely depressing - and vaguely distressing - being on the receiving end of so much spewing hatred. All because I decided to block a stranger who randomly decided to harass me for not even pretending to follow him.
Today has been a better day. As with the world, the vast majority of people are lovely and Twitter has been a friendly place today.
But I hope Twitter doesn't turn into Myspace with all that 'thanks for the add' nonsense. It's not a competition to collect as many friends as possible. And anyone who follows thousands and thousands of people can't actually be following them can they? So relax. And interact. I mean really interact.
The difference between following someone and replying to them is the difference between stopping to chat with someone in the street or giving them a badge declaring that you know them. One is actual interaction. The other is just something you can show your friends.
*Not a proven scientific fact.