How not to do Twitter: The rise and fall of my Twitterverse

I found out the hard way that not all Twitter followers are created equally

I came a little late to the Twitter party. Once I embraced the basic concept, I set out to build a massive Twitter following -- in all the wrong ways, and for all the wrong reasons. If you are new to Twitter, or trying to gain Twitter followers, perhaps you can learn from my mistakes.

The Wrong Way to Do Twitter

There is no point in tweeting in a vacuum. If you don't have Twitter followers, you are essentially only tweeting to yourself. I had grand visions of being an Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk - currently 6,891,674 followers), or a Pete Cashmore (@mashable - currently 2,336,322 followers), or a David Pogue (@pogue - currently 1,351,572 followers), or even a Robert Scoble (@scobleizer - currently 183,534 followers).

I did some Google searches and asked around about building a Twitter following. Apparently, I fell in with the wrong crowd and got the wrong advice. Basically, the direction I got was to follow as many other Twitter accounts as I possibly could, and then those Twitter tweeps would reciprocate and follow me back. The problem with this strategy is that it raises your Twitter following number, but doesn't attract any actual Twitter followers.

You can't buy love...or Twitter followers. The only Twitter followers you get following the "follow and they'll follow you back" strategy are other Twitter users following that same strategy. The net result was that I was quickly approaching 20,000 Twitter followers, but the vast majority of them were never really interested in reading my tweets or contributing to any meaningful dialog. In the end, I was still basically tweeting in a vacuum -- just a much larger vacuum.

Scorched Earth Do-Over

At some point, it occurred to me that I wasn't really interested in reading the tweets of the vast majority of the 15,000 or so Twitter accounts I was following, and there were so many tweets coming through that I couldn't get any value out of Twitter at all. I had no idea who these people were, or whether we had anything in common. Then it hit me -- if I don't care about reading their tweets, they probably don't care about reading mine either.

So, I went back and did some further research on my Twitter "idols". Ashton Kutcher only follows 637 Twitter accounts. Pete Cashmore follows 2,260, and David Pogue follows 1,631. Robert Scoble follows an insane 31,758 -- but it is still only one sixth of the number that are following him, and I am willing to bet he uses a variety of lists and filters and really only reads the tweets of a few hundred Twitter accounts.

I took a "scorched Earth" approach to rectifying the situation. I unfollowed everyone. Literally. All 15,000 plus Twitter accounts I was following -- gone. I'm sorry to those I unfollowed. It was nothing personal. It's not you, it's me.

Then, I started anew by following all of the accounts from the Techies: 2011 Director of Who to Follow On Twitter list by Jason Hiner at TechRepublic. I have since expanded the list with additional Twitter accounts I am interested in that aren't on Hiner's list, but my 15,000-plus list has been whittled down to a much more manageable 200. I do still use a couple lists in Tweetdeck to filter specific Twitter accounts that I want to follow more closely, but the traffic on my primary feed is now a reasonable pace that I can keep up with.

The Fallout

The first thing I found when I unfollowed everyone is that the same people who use the "follow me and I'll follow you back" strategy seem to be the same people who use those services that monitor who unfollowed them and then blast it out to all of Twitter -- as if the public shame is supposed to make me want to re-connect with them or something.

Frankly, a tweet that says "@thetonybradley and five other Twitter accounts unfollowed me today" says more about the one being unfollowed than it does about the ones doing the unfollowing. Perhaps those people should spend more time giving people a reason to want to follow them, and less time trying to embarrass them publicly.

Since I did my scorched Earth unfollowing, my Twitter following has been steadily declining. From its high somewhere north of 19,000, it has now dwindled to somewhere less than 16,800. It continues to drop with each passing day, albeit slowly.

The Right Way to Do Twitter

Building a Twitter following -- a real Twitter following -- is like building relationships in real life. The strategy I employed was akin to buying friends. You can get a lot of people to show up and be your buddy if you're giving away free ice cream, but how many of those people will be there to bail you out of county jail at 3am on a Saturday night after a bar fight?

The lesson in all of this is to be genuine. When you're insincere, you attract insincerity. My new goal is to simply be me, provide as much value as I can, and to be comfortable with whatever Twitter following that attracts -- whether it's 100,000 or 1,000...or 10.

I don't know where the bottom is on the fall of my Twitter following. Wherever it is, though, the Twitter followers who remain will be quality Twitter followers that matter -- Twitter followers who are actually interested in hearing what I have to say, sharing my thoughts with others, and engaging in debate and discussion.

I won't ever have the following of an Ashton Kutcher. I may not ever have the following of a Robert Scoble. But, whatever following I do have on Twitter will be relationships I have earned -- speaking of which, feel free to follow me @thetonybradley.

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