numbers – Stay N Alive

"Don’t Worry About It – It’s Going to be Awesome, and You’re Gonna Love It"

I’m currently sitting in the audience at Chirp, Twitter’s developer conference where they are anticipated to be revealing their plans for the future and overall strategies from here forward.  One of the big announcements so far was from Biz Stone, who boasted that Twitter has over 105 million registered users.  The entire premise of all talks thus far has been about these numbers.  No real big announcements thus far.  I’d like to focus on that number though:

Twitter boasts 105 million users, which is very accurate when you look at the unique ids for users.  In my site, SocialToo’s user cache, the maximum user id that we have recorded (out of 5 million cached users) is 132,851,613.  So, considering a large portion of Twitter’s users have been deleted, that number of 105 million would reflect most likely exactly the number Biz announced this morning.  It’s important to note this number is not total active users like their competitors such as Facebook are announcing.

In contrast,, one of their biggest competitors in the status space (and social advertising space), boasts a total of over 400 million active users, which they freely announce in open form on their press website.  In addition, over half of Facebook’s users log in at least once daily, which I’m pretty sure is far from the numbers Twitter is announcing.  A former employee of Facebook once told me Facebook actually has over a billion records of total registered users in their database.  If that is true, it would put Facebook as the single largest database of linked individuals in the world, next to the Mormon Church’s (which, a majority of that database is dead individuals).  Twitter pales in comparison.

The big theme I’m hearing from developers at this conference is that Twitter needs to be more transparent.  In reality, we don’t care about what Twitter’s numbers are.  We don’t even care if they compete with us.  We just want Twitter to be honest with us.  We want full vision of where they’re going, what their real numbers are, and what we can do with those numbers.  In the end, Twitter’s platform is useful because of what it contains, not how many people are using it.  Padding numbers doesn’t help that.

I certainly hope there wasn’t any waving of the Jedi hand when Biz Stone said, “Don’t Worry About it – It’s Going to be Awesome, and You’re Gonna Love It”.

Nobody Has a Million Blog Subscribers

BlogSubscribers-main_FullA recent blog post by Anil Dash has everyone talking about what I thought was a long-assumed fact that just because someone is on the Twitter Suggested User List (or SUL) and has a million followers doesn’t necessarily mean they actually have all of those followers listening to them.  Dash, who recently had the opportunity to be on the Suggested User List himself, cited examples of various other Twitter accounts put on the list that saw absolutely no additional response after being added to the list.

I’d like to take this a bit further though and suggest something that, because of its open nature as compared to Twitter, just hasn’t been talked about much. That is the fact that, just like Twitter followers, a blog’s subscribers is also subject to this phenomena.  I’d like to suggest that despite that number in the upper-right-hand corner, it means absolutely nothing in the sense of how many people are actually reading that content.  It’s just a number.

Speaking From Experience

Let me start with this blog, since I vowed to be more transparent.  If you read the Feedburner number in the upper-right section of this blog it says I have over 7,500 subscribers.  Let’s start right off with the fact that 6,030 of those are because FriendFeed includes its subscription counts in with my Feedburner stats.  I have 6,030 subscribers on FriendFeed, and those are part of that 7,500 you see above.  If you subscribe to me on FriendFeed, that increases the number.  Still, that 6,030 still has potential of seeing my content.  It’s still just a number though.

Now, let’s assume those FriendFeed numbers don’t count.  That leaves about 1,500 subscribers  that assumedly subscribe to this blog through some sort of Feed Reader (Google Reader, Newsvine, etc).  I don’t believe that number at all.  I’d bet that at most, half of those actually read the articles I publish, as I usually average between 2 and 5 comments on each blog post I write.  As for traffic, any time I post I get around 200-500 additional visitors per post.  On a really good day that could be in the thousands.  The thing is that most of those come from Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed, as well as other blogs that provide commentary. Those numbers aren’t even reflected in my subscriber count!

The Big Guys

If that’s my experience, I can only imagine the accuracy of those with hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers.  I know their numbers can’t be accurate, not only based on my experience on this blog, but also after being linked numerous times by them.  I must admit that, directly, I usually average 100-300 visitors from the millions of subscribers on each of these blogs.  I’m very grateful for this traffic, and that they’re talking about me – the fact that they’re writing about me has much more impact and influence than just traffic (as I’ll show later).  However, the fact that only 100 out of over a million subscribers are clicking seems to imply a very similar truth to what Dash is implying with Twitter subscribers and what I’m seeing on my blog: while a few hundred thousand may be reading each and every article, the rest are simply casual bystanders skimming headlines if anything at all.

Let’s add to that how many of these blogs are on FriendFeed’s default list and other services, adding to their numbers there, along with how many are the default on the Kindle, or many RSS Readers out there.  Many users just get subscribed to these blogs by default.  Sure, some casually discover the blogs and start reading, but there is a strong possibility that many of those subscribed to these blogs never even read them, some perhaps not even aware that they’re subscribed!

Yet, Numbers Still Do Matter

As Dash implies with Twitter, the number still has an effect.  He mentioned the possibility of brand managers getting raises because their bosses see the number of new subscribers they were able to get for their brand.  From my own personal experience, I’ve seen this on both Twitter and my blog.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been introduced as “influential” because I’m one of “the most followed Twitter users in Utah”, or “he has over 7,000 subscribers to his blog!”  Like it or not, many opportunities have opened up because of this.  All that and I don’t even have a million subscribers!

Let’s add to that the fact that I can sell it for money too.  On my blog I can sell ads for more because of this.  People are more likely to subscribe and tell their friends because beyond just content, they see that number as “influential”.  I’ve been introduced to many consulting opportunities because of this.  Of course I insist on proving myself beyond the numbers (I sincerely hope no one would hire me or anyone else based on numbers alone!), but numbers do matter!  For instance, if you have more subscribers than anyone else you get to say you are the top blog on the internet – that’s a powerful statement!  You bet it works.

Numbers also lead to better content.  As I consult for others I can’t tell you the number of people that want to pitch to blog X or blog Y because they have more subscribers than the others.  Having more people pitch to you means you get the scoop on more and better content, and you’re given more control.  The articles written may not bring much traffic, but the fact that “a big blog wrote about you” also means you can feature this in Press Releases, on your company blog, or more, giving the entrepreneur more attention from VCs, big businesses deals, and potential acquisitions down the road.  But if you’re looking for traffic some times it’s better to pitch to numerous smaller blogs than one or two big blogs.  If you want influence pitch to the bigger blogs.

Organic vs. Inorganic

There are many bloggers like Scoble, Chris Brogan, Louis Gray, and others that have built their audiences by working to build relationships with their readers, one-by-one.  Yet, others that have built their entire business model around blogging do it by creating business relationships, signing contracts, and then interacting with their readers as they have time.  I think both types of bloggers have similar trust with their readers.  Producing lots and lots of good content vs. building relationships with content are both good strategies, and both can produce similar results in how they affect those that read their content, as well as individual opportunities for the bloggers.

I think in the end it comes down to which is most rewarding.  I’m not going to say which one that is as that’s a matter of opinion – can a pure focus on numbers and subscriber counts vs. building relationships and organically building your audience be more or just as rewarding?  In the end we know one thing – that little number up there doesn’t mean what you think it says.

Or does it?

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?