follow – Stay N Alive

"Follow" Networks and The Creep Factor – Why It Isn’t a Facebook Play

As I was setting up an account for my wife to be able to post to this blog today, I created a Google+ profile for her. She knew, and will probably even use it – some day. However, there’s something I just can’t get passed, and that’s that I’m a little creeped out by the fact that just about anyone can follow her on Google+. The stalker factor is a real risk with systems that allow follow-type relationships. It’s going to be a really tough battle for Google to get passed this without any sort of 2-way friend relationship like Facebook if they want a mass audience. I’m starting to think that’s not what they’re going for.

Marshall Kirkpatrick had a great post where he mentioned that Google+ could be Google’s move to try and make Facebook a more open environment. I suggested it made some sense – a closed environment is a good way to compete with an open one (and vice-versa), however there’s one flaw to some of this – Facebook actually isn’t that closed. I can make my posts public there, just like Google+. Facebook’s API is one of the most accessible APIs I’ve come across. Facebook has given users almost 100% control of what apps have access to about them. Facebook even preempted Google by almost a year in having a way to backup your data to your own machine if you like. (See Louis Gray’s backup of his Facebook data here) David Recordon, Senior Open Programs Manager at Facebook, confirmed that point, pointing out that Google+ actually validates Google’s own open strategy, not just Facebook’s:

“One thing I appreciate is how Google is now developing skin in the game for when they try to design these decentralized protocols. These sorts of standards are honestly hard to get right and only come out successful when they follow real products. It’s been frustrating to see “Google invents open standard ” for the past two years without an appreciation for what it takes to make work at scale. And by “scale” I don’t mean anything to do with bits on the wire.”

In a sense, I see Google and Facebook working together, on 2 different planes to open up the social landscape. I don’t see them competing necessarily – Google is too open for that to be the case. On Google anyone can follow anyone – the relationships aren’t always 2-way, and this is a very popular feature amongst users of Twitter, which include the early adopter base, the tech blogs, and the media. Google+ has a follow model, similar to Twitter’s – not a friend model like Facebook’s. Again – there’s that stalker factor again. If you’re worried about stalkers, Facebook is just a much more secure and private environment to protect from that. It’s simply a lot harder to have a stalker on Facebook than it is on Google+ or Twitter.

Instead, I see Google competing more with Twitter and other more open follow-centric networks. It’s a different type of social graph than Facebook’s. For that reason I just can’t see my wife, or my daughter, or any of my kids or less tech-savvy friends using Google+ unless they adopt a more private 2-way friending model. It’s simply too risky. As a husband and father, I’m just not sure I can trust suggesting it to my wife and children and not have them expose something they’re not supposed to expose. I’m already seeing the problem of people trying to figure out what Circles do what, and people unknowingly posting things as public when they don’t mean to. On Facebook that all defaults as your friends only. That’s the advantage to Facebook – you can trust, for the most part (key words), that what you post will only be seen by those you specifically have friended. I don’t think Google should be scared of that, either.

The fact is, as it now stands, Google and Facebook just aren’t competitors at the moment, and they shouldn’t see each other as such. I know originally I said “Facebook should be shaking in their boots” (although I still stand by the fact that Google beat Facebook to encompassing the entire web experience – that will change though) – my hope is that at least got Facebook’s attention just in case Google does decide to go for those more intimate types of relationships (which they very well could), but for now, the way it is set up, that just isn’t going to be happen. Instead, I think it is Twitter that should really be paying attention, and let’s hope they do try to compete. The competition is a healthy one. Twitter has quite the competition though!

In the end, yes, this is a battle for your social graph. I do think there are different types of social graphs though, and the battle right now is over the less personalized graph and the more public information. If you do compare it to Facebook, perhaps Facebook Pages and the fan-to-Page relationship is the real social graph you should be looking at as competition. At the same time, will Google ever go after the more intimate relationships that are less educated on privacy? That’s hard to say, but I’m starting to feel Facebook isn’t the comparison right now.

If you’re looking for “one network to rule them all”, at the moment I don’t think there is such a thing. In reality, the “one network to rule them all” of the future probably won’t even be Google or Facebook. In the future, you’ll pull your social graphs from both services, and put them into your own more personalized network on the various sites you visit on the web (like Facebook Connect). In the end, in ad-focused networks like Google and Facebook, that is what they would prefer to see anyway – your social graph, from their networks, across all the websites on the internet. Each product experience will have its own reasons to choose which networks those connections come from.

Curing Spam on Twitter With Better Follow Limits

spamI posted this over on the Twitter developer mailing list to try and get a discussion going. I thought I’d post a copy here for my readers to discuss – maybe you have more ideas than I do. I want to make it clear that I do not condone what some users of SocialToo are doing to gain Twitter followers. Will I stop them? I can’t – as long as Twitter allows them to do it, I can’t make a decision one way or another on who is doing this and who is not. No matter what, I have to respect my users, and most (almost all) of them are using Twitter for legitimate reasons. I do think changing the limits to what I suggested in the e-mail (below) will fix the problem Twitter is trying to solve though:

Let’s discuss the follow limits. I feel, as developer of a tool that allows people to auto-follow, I have a bit of insight into this. While there are many, many legitimate users that auto-follow others, and have good reason to do so, some are using it as a way to game the system, build followers quickly, break the Twitter TOS, and reduce the meaning of follower numbers for many other users just using the service legitimately. I see this daily, amongst a few of my own users, and while, due to our privacy policy I can’t share who they are, I do have some suggestions that would make the API follow limits make a little more sense. Maybe you guys can provide more insight.

-Currently the follow per day limit is 1,000 follows per user per day. There is no limit on the number of unfollows a user can do per day (that I know of), and it appears as though there is also a limit of around 10% for the number of users a person can follow more than follow them back. The users taking advantage of Twitter have figured this out. So here’s what they do:

A “gamer”‘s typical activity is that they will follow as many people as they can – most up to the 1,000 limit they’re allowed per day, until they hit the ratio of 10%. The higher the follower base they gain, the longer they’re able to do this. They then hope a good portion of those 1,000 people follow back. Those that don’t use tools like mine (which weren’t intended to be used this way) to unfollow everyone who is not following them back. This is often much greater than 1,000 for the users that are really good at it. The process then starts over. They’ll use tools like Hummingbird (Google it) and Twollo to find people and automatically go out and follow them. This is why I refuse to create auto-follow filters to find new people on my service. It’s way too spammy if you ask me.

Why do they do this? 2 reasons: 1, “supposedly” having more followers means more visits and clicks in whatever you’re trying to promote. (I don’t believe this) and 2, many of these people also have auto-DM set up to send links and messages to each person that follows them back. Back when I offered this service (we disabled it for this exact reason) people told me they were seeing significant clicks on the links they would send to people via DM after they followed them. Therefore, more follows==more clicks==more revenue. I don’t blame them if that’s what they’re really seeing.

So for this reason I think having limits in place is a *good* thing. I don’t think the follow limit is in place due to traffic reasons, since there are many more calls that cause more traffic on the API and there is no limit to unfollows, so I really think Twitter is doing this for the purpose of reducing spam and “gaming” of Twitter. This is a good thing.

However, I think Twitter may be approaching the limits the wrong way. Here’s what I think would be more effective, and beneficial for the legitimate users that want to follow back and at the same time not allow those who want to game the system to use the methods I described. Twitter needs to impose limits based on whether the individual is following the user back or not.

For instance, if I follow @dacort and he is following me back, that shouldn’t count against me as a hit against my follow limit. However, if I try to follow @dacort and he is not following me back, it should count against me as a hit against my limit. With this, users could easily auto-follow back if they choose to, and it would still be difficult for the users trying to game the system and spam Twitter. In fact, you could significantly *reduce* the limit this way and make it virtually impossible for these users to use Twitter in that manner. If you were to look at the relationship between the users when counting against limits, you could probably reduce the follow/day limit all the way to around 200 per day instead of 1,000 per day. I don’t see any reason for the 10% follow/follower ratio with a low limit such as that.

However, as stands, the more followers you get, if you are using Twitter legitimately, you have no way to extend the courtesy back if you choose to do so, since after a certain point you will be following many more than 1,000 users per day. And even if you aren’t, it will take an extremely long time for many individuals to finally catch up to follow those following them if they want to at 1,000 follows per day.

I know there are some that disagree with the auto-follow concept. However, I also know most of you also want Twitter to be an open environment where people can choose to use it as they please. Doug, Alex, etc. I’d love it if you guys could at least consider changing the follow limits as I mentioned. The current limits are doing nothing to prevent the spammers – my suggestions I believe will, and will keep it an open environment for the rest of us.

Sorry for the long discourse – I would really love to hear others thoughts and suggestions.


Feel free to chime in on the developers mailing list, or let’s discuss here – what suggestions do you have? Are there any holes in my proposal?