Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment, because if there’s one topic that could be considered controversial about the usage of Twitter, it’s this one. When someone new follows you, should you follow them back?
Some say yes, of course; it’s rude not to. Some say no, why should I? Twitter isn’t meant to be reciprocal. Others (like me) land somewhere in the middle. And still others are baffled, overwhelmed, or totally undecided.
Today I’m going to break down each school of thought in hopes of putting things in perspective, and maybe helping the undecided figure out where they stand. I am not – I repeat – I am not trying to convince anyone of one method over another. I’ve seen people use each of the options below to great success, so I suspect the answer lies less in “which is the best overall” and more in “which is the best fit for you.”
The plan: Follow back everyone who follows you, barring spambots. These people usually end up with a higher number of “following” than “followers.”
The goal: Build a high number of followers. Be inclusive. Maintain a wide pool of people to interact with.
The detractors: Many social media instructors teach that a “good ratio” is part of building a platform as a writer. If you follow everyone who follows you and then some, you look like a fan instead of someone to be a fan of.
The reasoning: This school of thought believes that following back is common courtesy. It costs you nothing, so there’s no reason not to. If you expect people to follow you, you have to be willing to return the favor.
Some supporters of this method also argue that it’s just smart to acknowledge fans/readers. If someone follows you and you follow back, it’s like a tip of the hat for their attention. Happy fans are good fans, after all.
Every Tweep for Him/Herself
The plan: Follow only people who offer you value – connections, prestige, information, entertainment, etc. These people usually end up with a lower number of “following” than “followers.”
The goal: Build an impressive ratio. Create your social media presence to carry a high amount of influence.
The detractors: Opponents of this method point out that it makes users look like snobs. Authors risk annoying readers with their elitism – especially today’s readers, who expect a certain level of interaction  with their favorite authors.
The reasoning: This school of thought believes that an artist’s time is of the utmost value. No one is making you follow, so it’s unreasonable to be offended if you aren’t followed back. If an author wants to find great content in a limited amount of time, keeping a tight following list helps them get back to the truly important stuff faster – writing books.
This school also argues that Twitter isn’t designed to be reciprocal. Unlike platforms that have “friends,” which is a connection that must be approved by both parties, Twitter uses “follows” so anyone can follow anyone else. These users often don’t think of themselves as elitists; they think of themselves as practical. I follow who I want, and you follow who you want, and if those don’t match up, that’s okay.
[pullquote]I believe in my time and its value, yes, but I also believe in being considerate and making genuine connections with others.[/pullquote] The plan: Follow the people who offer you value, plus some of the people who follow you. Also follow anyone who follows you and strikes up a conversation. These people’s following/follower ratios vary, but usually end up with following numbers somewhere over half their followers but less than all.
The Goal: Be welcoming but not just another follower. Balance inclusiveness with a presence that signifies quality and importance.
The detractors: There’s space for detractors of both schools of thought for this compromise. If you don’t follow every person, you still run the risk of losing potential readers. And if you let your ratio become lopsided toward following, you still run the risk of looking like a follower instead of someone with something to offer. Striking the right balance can be tricky.
The reasoning: This school of thought happens to be my school of thought, and it’s one I’ve settled on after listening to very smart people argue for both sides.
For me, there are two main problems with team followback’s plan. The primary one is time. Social media networking is valuable, but not as valuable as my writing time. It’s so easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, and that rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper the more people you follow. Making and utilizing lists can help counteract that, but only to a limited degree, because making and maintaining lists takes time in and of itself. Looking at new followers and checking out their profiles every time you get online sucks up time as well.
The second drawback to following everyone who follows you is the ratio. I do not believe in letting numbers rule your social media  – I think that’s a great way to suck every ounce of fun out of things – but I do believe there’s truth to the idea of ratios making first impressions. Personally, I’m more impressed by someone who has 1,000 followers if they’re only following 500 than someone with 20,000 who’s following 25,000. Of course, first impressions aren’t everything, but I do think a healthy ratio signals to new readers that you’re someone who offers value to others.
That said, I dislike both snobbery and rudeness. I believe in my time and its value, yes, but I also believe in being considerate and making genuine connections with others. If someone takes the time to follow me and strike up a conversation, I think it’s rude to ignore them. And almost always (unless I’ve found them offensive or otherwise off-putting in some way), I follow them back. They’ve demonstrated a clear intention to make a connection with me, and isn’t that value?
That’s the thought process that has led me to my current policy. I follow who I want to follow: people who look interesting, teach me things, entertain me, etc. Every once in a while, I glance at my new followers and follow the people who catch my eye in some way. And I check out everyone who @ mentions me, and almost always follow them back. I’m sure I’ve lost more than a few people who got annoyed when I didn’t follow back, but are those really the type of followers I want anyway? People only in it to boost their own numbers? As it is, I follow a manageable number of people so I can focus my social media time on building authentic connections rather than just a big number. It’s not a perfect system, but so far it’s worked pretty well for me.
You can follow me on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer . As you know, I don’t automatically follow back, but if you say hi or mention finding me here at Writer Unboxed, I certainly will! I’m also happy to answer your Twitter questions as best I can.
[Note: I’ll be a little slower than usual in responding to your comments here, but I will get back to you when I can.] It’s time to weigh in, and I know you all have strong opinions on this matter. How do you decide when to follow back? Has your system changed over time? Questions, thoughts, and passionate rants alike are welcome below. ;)