What Happened When I Stopped Following and Started Listening

For some time now, I’ve found myself disengaging with Twitter; it was overwhelming, chaotic and assaulting. I didn’t even like to look at the thing any more. The topics were either too disjointed or too the same. There was very little that was interesting to me and I began to feel like it was TV commercials all over again. Cartoon Birds Representing Twitter

And it was all my fault.

I was the one who allowed Twitter to turn into something I didn’t like. And I’ve done that by following back everyone and their brother.

You might say, “But, Jessica, isn’t that the polite thing to do? Someone follows you and you follow them back?” If you had asked me that question a few months ago, I would have said, “Of course.”

I knew what I had to do. I had to get comfortable with the fact that it’s OK to be discerning about who you follow. And that took me about one minute to get on board with, because the outcome of the other approach – the one I had been practicing – was creating a Twitter that sucked.

How I Scaled Back on the People I Followed

It took me some time to get through the initial analysis and make the first cut (and I say “cut” in the nicest possible way). I severed ties not based on how valuable I believe these people were as human beings (except you, people behind the spam), but on how many opportunities there were for our conversations or interests to align.

So yes, I’m giving the it’s-not-you-it’s-me spiel.

I got into FollowerWonk and used its analysis to find out who the heck was in my Twitter community. This app definitely gives you the starting data you need to begin pruning.

But first: You have to have a goal in mind.

My goal for Twitter was to make it less of a place that made me want to leave, and I also wanted to be more strategic about who I followed (I don’t think I could really have one without the other).

I analyzed the people I followed, and looked at:

Influence score: I used this not because I wanted to be sure I was following the most popular people, but because I wanted to see what those most popular people really had to say. If I liked what they were sharing, I then wanted to interact with them to see how well they listened and engaged before I decided if they made the cut or not.

Twitter Influence Scores from FollowerWonk


Follower counts: I looked at the follower counts of the people I followed. I concentrated on those with the lowest and the highest follower counts to start. I could quickly go through the users with the most followers and find out if they were affiliates, spammers, etc. I could then see if the ones with the least followers had anything interesting to say as well, or if they had a small following for a reason.

Twitter Follower Counts on FollowerWonk

Recency of tweets: If someone hasn’t tweeted in months, let alone years, I had to ask how valuable that is to what I was trying to accomplish.

Twitter Recency of Tweets on FollowerWonk

Language of people I follow: I “get” that most of the world learns English as a second language, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know Spanish or Italian. So it would make sense for those who knew English to follow me, but not so much the other way around. So I went in and quickly assessed if any of their tweets were in English. If not, I disengaged.

Twitter Language of Followers on FollowerWonk

After Followerwonk, I Did This

I started to watch my Twitter stream. I analyzed the topics that came through day to day. If you haven’t done that in a while, it kinda blows your mind. Why in the world would I be following updates about real estate in Ohio?

Then there were the people that I engaged with who didn’t engage back. I was surprised there was more than one instance of this. I would tweet about a great post someone wrote and even mention their Twitter handle in the update … and nothing. Or I would reply to one of their random conversational tweets, and all I got back was crickets chirping. #rude #buh-bye

Try that with your own account – how much do you really care about the topics you see filtering in? Who do you engage with that doesn’t engage back? Start testing and see what you find out.

I also looked at my “follow back” stats using Friend or Follow (FollowerWonk shows this, too, but I like the way it’s laid out in the Friend or Follow tool). Who were the people I was following that didn’t follow me back? I would be a hypocrite if I said you should unfollow all those who don’t follow you back. And guess what? In my old way of thinking, that’s exactly what I would have done. Because following back was one of my only personal Twitter strategies, if you’d even call it that.

So what I did in the Friend or Follow tool was looked at which of those accounts still added value to my stream, and if they did, I continued to follow them.

How Do You Connect When You Follow 50,000+?

I had already formulated in my mind that following too many people or brands on Twitter = less meaningful experiences. But I wanted to see what other people thought who literally followed thousands upon thousands of people.

I reached out to two women, both who followed more than 50,000 people. I wasn’t surprised when one of them didn’t respond, because, well, that seems like a perfectly normal symptom of having that many people in your stream.

The person who did respond (and very quickly) was Marsha Collier, author of the “For Dummies” series on eBay and ecommerce, and founder of the Twitter Customer Service chat #custserv.

I asked:

How do you connect with people when you have more than 50,000 of them in your Twitter stream?

To which she replied:

”I Tweet daily links to articles and quotes that I feel resonate with my audience (I study demographics & stats). I answer every “@” comment and question that I can.”

That surprised me, because one would think you would have to literally be on Twitter all day to respond to all the mentions that come through if you had 50,000 followers.

Curious, I asked:

How many @mentions do you get on average per day, and how much time does it take you to get back to all of them?

To that, Marsha said:

“If I say ‘beats me,’ is that a good enough answer? I answer at odd times; in the morning, late at night, midday during work breaks. The only set-aside Twitter time is with my coffee in the morning.”

… Impressive.

Her advice for cutting through the clutter of thousands of tweets?

You can enhance your connection with different groups of people on Twitter by using Twitter lists. You can easily make a private list consisting of your core customers and friends that cannot be seen by your followers or anyone else. This way you have a clear view of the conversation of your closest connections, without the distraction on thousands of tweets. These lists can be viewed individually through Twitter desktop apps, as well as in mobile applications.”

Do You Have to Give Up Influence to Have Meaning?

I think you can have both if you really try. I also think your perspective largely depends on your meaning of “influence” on Twitter. In your mind, if number of followers = influence, you may have less of a chance to create meaning unless you work very hard at it. And maybe your definition of “meaning” is totally different from the next person, too.

Gary Vaynerchuk comes to mind. I remember years ago hearing him say he had thousands of unread emails in his inbox, but promised to reply to each and every one – no matter how backed up they were and no matter how insignificant someone might say they are.

In the following interview, Gary opens by talking about social media and how your grandparents are probably better equipped to serve customers, because business owners actually cared back then about the individual. This is good stuff.

What I Discovered After I Severed Ties

I lost several followers in the days after the initial cut of profiles from my stream. No doubt it was those people who monitor unfollows, and then do the same thing right back. And I’m fine with that. Frankly, I don’t really want those kind of people in my stream anyway.

Despite losing followers, my “influence score” in FollowerWonk increased in the days to follow the first cut. This reinforces the idea that meaning and influence can coexist.

I realized that if people are following you and you don’t follow them back, and they still want to follow you – they place value on what you have to share, not whether or not you “like” them back.

And guess what? I was actually having conversations with people! I could start to see updates from those I wanted to hear from. I’m engaging in more conversation and finding topics that interest me. All of a sudden, Twitter became a better research tool, and a better relationship tool.

Then, I started looking at the things I was doing to see how I could add more value. For example, instead of just retweeting, I was starting to add in my perspective on it, or taking a quote from the post or saying why I liked it. I was also sending more personalized messages to people when I connected – using their names, commenting on their profiles, their products or services.

This all seems like pretty simple stuff, but it can have an impact. Just as I want people to listen to me, I want to make sure they know I’m listening, too.

There are lots of cool people doing lots of cool things with their Twitter accounts that we can all learn from. And those are some of the people you want to take cues from while you’re there. Make it a learning experience, do some testing with your approach, see what works.

There’s no right and wrong, only what works for your brand the kind of experience you want to create.

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (8)
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8 Replies to “What Happened When I Stopped Following and Started Listening”

Twitter can become a very chaotic place very quickly if you aren’t careful about how you use it. Twitter should be a tool to get information that is relevant to you. If it gets too cluttered with posts that you don’t find interesting you will probably spend less time there. There is no rule that says that you need to follow everyone back that follows you. It’s a nice gesture, but it can lead to things getting out of hand.

Hi Jessica,

I’ve actually experience this kind of issue on twitter. Thanks to Adam I found out this article, since I found it intriguing I saw myself following and reading your post. I am actually using followerwonk and it an awesome tool to use. Thanks also for sharing your experience I can able to use this tool more effectively.

I strongly agree with you that it is essential to connect to people that can be interesting and helpful for you. Since this media is not use for advertising purposes, it must be used for interaction, creating connections that can benefit both parties. Thank also for sharing another tool : Friend or Follow , I want to try this one.

Again an awesome experience worthy to share.

Hi Jessica, thanks for the great article and FollowerWonk. Just tried it! :)

The problem when using social media regardless of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, etc is the mindset.

A lot of people use old mindset (broadcasting, mass marketing) to use social media (targeted marketing, conversation, building relationship). This is the main reason why you feel like it was TV commercials all over again.

I use Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin in totally different way. My focus always in building relationship, as Mitch Joel said “When are we going to learn that millions of followers does not always equal influence?”


“We (as a public) seem to believe that the influence comes from the sheer volume of impressions and connections that we have in the marketplace…It doesn’t. True influence comes from connecting to the individuals, nurturing those relationship, adding real value to the other [people]’s lives and doing anything and everything to serve them, so that when the time comes for you to make an ask, there is someone there to lend a hand. Worry less about how many people you are connected to and worry a whole lot more about who you are connected to, who they are and what you are doing to value and honor them.”

Because I focus on relationship building. I am able to connect with Neal Schaffer (World Linkedin Top Author) and Alison Woo (CNN Journalist) and we work on projects. :)

As long as we focus on relationship and a clear goal, we won’t distract ourselves in using social media.

One book is very powerful in relationship building is from Dale Carnegie – How to win friends and influence people”, which it is highly recommended to everyone to read.

@Kelly: Thanks for the comment, Kelly. Do you follow a particular industry or cause? It can sometimes feel like we live in a bubble when we do this with the same information that’s shared and re-shared. I’ve found the most value to date is connecting with people, not information. Start conversations and see what sort of great things can come from it.


@Richard: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I can see you’re passionate about his topic.

Funny when the online social game tries to mimic sociability in life. It simply can’t compare. Your comment:

“Not following back or pruning out huge chunks of those that CAN benefit from your product or in your industry is simply saying what I have to say is more important than what you have to say. IT is distinctly UN-social.”

While I do understand what you mean, I see it differently. How can you have a meaningful social experience when you have all those people in your stream?

You can argue that lists help a great deal in connecting with those you want to hear from (and I think lists are a great tool), but then aren’t you just treating those others that you don’t engage with like numbers?

Also on you other point:

“What is also does is keep people that may be customers from following you. Many people will simply not follow someone if there is little possibility of them following back as evidenced by their follow ratio.”

While this may matter to many people, I also believe there is another phenomenon that happens when people have an imbalanced ratio of followers to followees (if that’s even a word, ha). People tend to want to follow popular people without question, and a high numbers of followers regardless of how many you follow can be a trust signal.

I’m not saying abuse this concept. I wouldn’t ever make it my ultimate goal on Twitter to have a high number of followers. Like I said, everyone has different goals. And companies might treat their Twitter accounts different than individuals would.


Thanks for the post Jessica. I find myself if the same position with Twitter – apathetic to the conversation. I will take a few of your tips to see if this helps. I think using lists would really help.

Being preoccupied with reciprocity in social media is a time-consuming thing since you can never really force people to follow you back if your content has little value to them. Because it’s time-consuming, it leaves little room for actual engagement.

In my opinion the best practice is to follow back everyone that has may be able to benefit from my service, everyone that provides information I want to learn, those in my industry and some that are just plain interesting.

Utilizing lists and even a simple dashboard like Hootsuite you can effectively separate out those you are following (and those you don’t follow, but want to see their tweets) into manageable chunks.

Not following back spammers, porn sites and those that simply cannot benefit from your product is understandable. I tend to actually block spammers (those that follow few and followed back by fewer, but that post large numbers of tweets) and the porn accounts.

Not following back or pruning out huge chunks of those that CAN benefit from your product or in your industry is simply saying what I have to say is more important than what you have to say. IT is distinctly UN-social.

What is also does is keep people that may be customers from following you. Many people will simply not follow someone if there is little possibility of them following back as evidenced by their follow ratio.

I counsel my clients, many that have much larger followings than mine, that they could be losing out on advice & leads by not following a wide swath of those who follow them.

If you are trying to manage your Twitter life by the main feed, you are losing out on much of the information, the true value, in Twitter. Like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Take advantage of the tools available to sort the data from that firehose down into manageable chunks – mini-feeds specific to that list or interest, but don’t turn the firehose into a sippy straw and lose the value of all that data.


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