autofollow – Stay N Alive

With New API, Twitter Attempts to Kill Autofollow Apps

Just this last week Twitter retired their long-lived 1.0 API for developers. This API was the first “versioned” release, a breath of fresh air in many ways for developers that were tired of API updates breaking their code. On June 11th, Twitter forced all devs to upgrade to their 1.1 API however, breaking many developers’ apps in the process (mine included). What hasn’t been said yet is that autofollow apps (apps that automatically follow people that follow you) seem to be out of luck with this new update, and no word yet from Twitter.

The problem with 1.1 lies in a new set of rate limits. Developers are allowed to make a certain number of calls per API method, meaning each method can only be called a certain number of times within a given time frame. This, I’m sure, is freeing up all kinds of resources and money on Twitter’s servers.

However, for apps relying on regular updates to a person’s social graph (their followers or friends), this reeks havoc on those apps. The rate limit currently for just getting the ids of a single user is 15 API calls per 15 minutes. Here’s the problem: you have to make a single API call for every 5,000 friends or followers that user has. Twitter’s API requires apps to “page” through a user’s friends and followers 5,000 at a time. This is great if a user has under 75,000 friends, but once you make that API call over 15 times to get a user’s friends, you’re stuck waiting another 15 minutes to get the rest of their friends. Now imagine if that user or brand has over 100,000 friends or followers! Or what about over 1 million! It’s impossible for an app that is trying to evaluate a person’s social graph to always know a person’s followers or friends in that rate limit, rendering apps like auto-follow, or even simple social graph analytics, impossible.

When you think about it, this might make sense per Twitter’s current business model. For users and brands with over 75,000 followers, I’m willing to bet Twitter would love to have them as customers. Many of those can afford an account rep that can take care of custom requests. In addition, Twitter now has their own analytics to track a user’s social graph growth over time. So maybe Twitter is discouraging these types of apps. I’m fine with that as long as they are open about it.

If this is the direction Twitter is going, I have to say I’m used to it. To be honest I haven’t been putting much effort into my own service that has focused on the social graph of Twitter users, SocialToo, because of it. In many ways it has just become another “hole” filler in Twitter’s API history. As a developer though, this is certainly discouraging, and even further driving me away from Twitter’s developer platform.

I hope I’m wrong. I’ve asked in the Twitter developer forums with no answer yet. Is there another solution I’m missing? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do another post showing how to do it.

The New Twitter and Why Im Purging All 30,000 of My Friends

This has been done many times before and I’ve resisted it for years now. The fact is, auto-follow is a core service to my company, SocialToo, so choosing, as a user, to move away from such is a big deal. We invented auto-follow. It’s a great idea because it focuses on relationships. The fact is, and it’s taken me a long time to come to grips with this:

Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t want you to auto-follow. 

For that reason I’m using Twitter the way Ev and Biz want me to, and I’m starting over. Stay with me on this though, because there are better things in store, and I think there are ways to still focus on the relationship side of things. Let me explain.

The New Twitter

With the recent launch of embedded photos today and potentially videos within the stream on Twitter, is very quickly, just like is for Facebook, becoming the de facto client experience for Twitter users. I can go there and look at lists. I can see all the photos and videos of my friends. I can get regular updates from them. In the future, developers will be able to build apps for the experience (you heard it here, folks). The fact is, I’m getting more and more of a great experience on and having much less of a need to use Tweetdeck (my current Twitter client of choice) as a result. Especially with browser extensions like Kynetx, my web browser is now becoming my multi-network experience and I need a separate social networking client less and less these days.

There was one problem though, and I mentioned it on Twitter today: My default feed on Twitter defaulted to my main Twitter stream and Twitter provides no experience to “hide” users that I follow from the stream. Twitter’s entire focus is on the stream, not the actual users like on Facebook, and because of that I don’t think “hide” will every happen.

How I Used to Use Twitter

Since I auto-follow, I’ll be first to admit my main Twitter stream is getting pretty cluttered right now with 30,000 people in it, and in TweetDeck, I don’t even have it as a column at the moment. For my purposes though, auto follow worked well for me. I have people that read my books and read this blog and watch me speak, and I want to have the opportunity to meet those people and get to know them eventually.

It didn’t really matter that my main feed was cluttered though because by auto-following, I got to focus on what mattered most – relationships. Each and every one of my followers (with the exception of bots, which there are many) has some sort of interest in me, and I never want to neglect the opportunity to meet them, converse with them, and perhaps follow their updates some day. For that reason I would use lists, and the people who I had built relationships with and whose updates I wanted to follow I would add to those lists. Rather than my main feed, I would use a series of lists to see what people were up to and I would create a column for each inside Tweetdeck. It was much more organized that way, and by doing so I could focus on a backlog of people I could potentially get to know better, and I really would as they DM’d me, replied to my updates, and more.

Twitter is Made of Content, Not People

Today I came to a realization though that Twitter wasn’t built that way. On Facebook the relationships are 2-way, so accepting every friend request and using lists to filter people out makes a lot of sense. It’s more a contract on Facebook – “I’ll trust you if you trust me back”. I could then use lists and privacy controls to ensure my closer family and friends were protected.

However, on Twitter, an almost 100% public ecosystem, I don’t have that liberty. When I follow you, you don’t have to get to know me back. It’s all about the content, not the people, I want to subscribe to according to them – I don’t think that’s going to change unfortunately (but my focus on people will still remain the same). Regardless of Twitter’s focus, since I was using lists anyway, it really didn’t matter if I followed you in the first place. If I wanted to get to know you you could still reply to my tweets, and I could still add you to the lists I pay attention to. Not to mention the fact that Biz Stone himself has said he didn’t agree with auto follow.

So, wanting to use more, and realizing Twitter’s intentions, I decided it was time for a change in strategy. My focus still being on relationships. I decided that I would go ahead and unfollow everyone first, starting with a clean slate. Then, I’m going to focus on a new auto follow strategy.

My New, Still People and Relationship-Focused Strategy

Instead of auto-following everyone that follows me, I’m now going to start running a script that auto follows everyone that mentions my name, as well as people I add to a specific list. So, if you or I engage in conversation, I follow you. This way, I follow everyone who truly has a genuine interest in being a part of my community. I am also, through the list, able to follow others that I just find genuinely interesting. If they spam me, I just have to block them and they’ll never be followed again. And of course, I can always manually follow as well if I don’t want to trust the script (which I’ll likely do).

As a result of this I’m going to start a new focus on SocialToo as well. Auto-follow will still exist. The current tools will all still exist. However, I’m going to start focusing more on lists, and on being able to auto-follow and auto-add people to lists that are truly engaging. I have many of these tools written right now (if you want one right now ask me and we may be able to work out a deal), and should start integrating them shortly into the services we offer.

So if I unfollowed you tonight, don’t worry. If you are worried, just retweet me or reply to me or do something that mentions my Twitter handle (@Jesse) and you’ll be refollowed as soon as I’m done with the purge. I’m excited to see where this goes. Following Twitter’s own intentions should put me more in a mindset to understand how future users will be using the service.

If you have any ideas as I do this, let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Real Solution to Fix the "Twitter Game"

twitter-gameTwitter has been initiating a crackdown of sorts on sites that offer “automated unfollow” services such as my own  Since we announced we were removing it on SocialToo, at least 3 other services have also been asked to remove the functionality, which enables people to automatically unfollow others that unfollow them on Twitter.  I have also noticed Twitter is now cracking down on Twitter accounts that perform this practice.  When chatting with Twitter, their reasoning is that auto-unfollow “perpetuates the idea that Twitter is about follower counts”.  Assuming that this is the real reasoning behind the request, I’d like to suggest a more effective means of killing that idea: kill services that allow proactive follow in the first place and follower churn will go away.

Let me first explain what proactive follow is.  There are many services out there right now that enable you to find new followers based on keywords.  You specify search terms, perhaps based on your brand, and these services then go out and find people Tweeting with these keywords, and the service follows those people.  Some will even send a public @mention or DM if they meet your search criteria.  The entire hope is that those people will follow back (note that not everyone does this automatically), increasing your follower count and potential reach.

The problem with this method is that Twitter has limits in place.  As people unfollow you as you are increasing your numbers in this way, soon you will be following way more people than are following you back.  Twitter has a limit right now, in which if you’re following around 10% more of the people that are following you on Twitter, you will not be able to follow any more.  So what happens is these people using these “get more follower” services then use legit services like my SocialToo to unfollow all of the people that have stopped following them, bringing their ratio back in check.  It’s a direct rebellion against Twitter’s rules and regulations, and I don’t blame Twitter for being concerned about it.  In fact, I refuse to allow proactive follow on SocialToo just for this reason – we are not a “get more followers fast” site.  We’re a utility that enables you to manage your Twitter stream better and easier.

So Twitter has come up with the best solution they can come up with – “let’s kill the sites that are providing automatic unfollow and the follower churn will go away”.  The idea being if users can’t unfollow those users that have unfollowed them after they proactively went out and followed everyone, it’s a lot harder to game the system and break Twitter’s rules.  Based on my experience with what users are telling me on SocialToo, this breaks Twitter for many big brands using the service in a legit manner though.  Let me share a few use-cases people are telling me about after we removed it on SocialToo:

Legit Use-Cases for Auto-Unfollow

Some Brands Just Have Big Numbers — On SocialToo we service some really big brands.  Let’s face it: these brands have a lot of followers.  Following those followers back gives their followers a sense that the brand is listening to them.  It’s a PR move, as well as a customer service move because their followers can now DM them.  For instance, I followed @PCSki the other day, hoping to be able to get a spot in for my wife’s and my Ski Vacation to Park City Utah.  Because they followed me back, I was able to keep our conversation private.  This reciprocal follow is an important piece for Brands looking to communicate better with their followers and customers.  @PCSki got a sale (and future blog post) out of me because of that relationship.

Now, assuming we’re dealing with millions of followers, or hundreds of thousands of followers, or even thousands of followers it is absolutely impossible to continue following back the people that follow you based on Twitter’s 10% ratio limit.  If I want to follow everyone back, the fact is about 1/3 to 1/2 of those people I follow back will unfollow me at some point, and my ratio breaks.  I’m then stuck waiting until more people follow me before I can follow back more.  This is bad for brands, especially those with bigger numbers.  If you think numbers aren’t important for a brand, you’re flat out wrong.

Auto Unfollow Kills the Churners — The main reason I created automatic unfollow on SocialToo was because it’s another effective technique at combating spammers if you do auto follow (see above for some good reasons to auto follow as a brand ).  For a good auto follow service to occur, it’s the natural thing to do to offer auto unfollow services as well in order to keep out the spammers you might follow unintentionally.  This is also the reason we offer DM filters and other filtering services on SocialToo.  For those gaming the system, the minute they unfollow me to hope their numbers stay up, I immediately unfollow them as well, and their numbers don’t increase at all.

Auto Unfollow Enables Steady Growth, Despite Friends Unfollowing — if auto unfollow were not available, a typical brand or person wanting to enable auto follow on their account would go as follows: Number of friends increase. Number of friends stay stagnant until ratio is met.  Number of friends increase again.  Steady growth is not attainable with Twitter’s current ratio limit and the lack of auto unfollow.

The Solution

So what can Twitter do?  I understand they’re between a rock and a hard place here.  They could remove the ratio limits, but then the churners (or gamers) would take over again.  They could kill automated unfollow services, but other services will still take over – I can already think of  a good way to create a browser extension that does it on a user-by-user basis if we wanted to.  Also, killing automated unfollow removes the ability for users to defend themselves against the churners.  Twitter could just let the churning happen, but then jealousy happens and people complain (not sure that’s a bad thing as I think people can see through the fakes, but I understand their viewpoint).  Twitter could remove the numbers, only enabling them in private for each individual, but that would remove some of the fun and competition of Twitter.

The only decent solution is to kill the services that are enabling proactive follow.  Disable those enabling the ability to search by keyword and follow based on that keyword.  This is a pure API-based service that Twitter can shut off at the source pretty easily.  Once these are gone, churning, and the “Twitter Game” will be over for those abusing the system.

The Fact is Twitter is About Numbers

While I don’t think Twitter wants people gaming the system to create more numbers, I think Twitter knows that the only way to grow the service is to enable people to increase their number of followers and grow an audience.  If you don’t think that, you’re lying to yourself.  Everyone wants more followers, especially if you’re a brand or business.

Twitter prominently displays follower counts on each user’s page, along with a list of who’s following them, the number of lists they’re on, the number of lists they’ve created, and the list goes on.  Twitter has a Suggested User List  – the entire goal being to give people a larger number of people those people can follow and find interesting things from.  Users get higher prominence in Google if their numbers are higher on Twitter.  Numbers are everything to Twitter, let’s not kid ourselves.

Twitter Needs to Kill the Proactive Follow

The only way Twitter is going to fix the problem they see at hand is to kill services enabling users and brands to go out and proactively find new followers.  Killing the unfollow isn’t going to fix this.  Killing the proactive follow will.  My hope is that, assuming this is the real reason Twitter wants to kill it, Twitter will realize this and give freedom back to their users to continue maintaining their accounts.

As I said on the SocialToo blog – in the meantime, we’re in Twitter’s world and we’re subject to their rules, so until then I’ll do what they tell me.  Let’s hope they’re listening though.  SocialToo provides many more services than just this though, so I’m not worried – I am worried about our users however.

Are there use-cases I’m missing?  How were you using auto-unfollow?