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Your Twitter Followers are not your friends – The Ethics of social media

September 8, 2010

If you’re reading this, then chances are that you got here in one of two ways…

Either you followed this tweet from the @chicknstu twitter stream, in which case you’re here to read about the ethics of social media, or you followed a blaring retweet from my personal twitter stream @StewHogarth, in which case you’ll be expecting to read the MOST IMPORTANT ARTICLE EVER WRITTEN ABOUT TWITTER!!!

If it’s the latter, and you know or have worked out that myself and Chicknstu are in fact the same person, then presumably you now think I’m a massive prick.

The reason you think I’m a prick is because you know that myself and Chicknstu are the same person. It looks like I’m wedged up my own arse, and if you follow both accounts, it looks like I’m spamming you. The fact is, this kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME on Twitter, and some of the time, you’re completely clueless.

I did it to provide a live example of the kind of thing I saw going on in the world of Twitter when I initially started using it seriously for ‘social media’. This is what’s known as an outsider opinion. I don’t claim to be a social media expert. In fact, given how nebulous the field is, I’d question if anyone should claim to be a ‘social media expert’. But I’ve been trying quite hard to get my head around the medium, and initially it seemed like quite a murky world.

What Twitter claims to be is a missing link between companies and their customers. Companies can talk to their fans and consumers directly, get to know them on a personal level, and it allows them to spread company news virally using their fandom as a conduit. It’s also another way for news and media to spread, through dialogue, and a way of making contacts and getting to know them better.

What I actually found was that Twitter is full of irrelevant noise, arse licking, name dropping, self promotion and sockpuppeting. Success is gauged by how many followers a person has, rather than if what they say is relevant or interesting. And I’m not the only one who thought this.

My initial negativity came from witnessing some of the practices, such as the one demonstrated above, that are widespread amongst social media enthusiasts, and jumping to incorrect conclusions about the motivation behind them. But as I have discovered, it was all my own fault. I’d been doing it wrong. There is a sound reasoning behind each practice, as well as an overarching and ultimately ethical rationale behind the whole social media scene.

So what pissed me off?

When it came to starting in social media, the name of the game appeared to be to follow as many important people as possible, whether you know them in real life or not. Simpering over prominent people, agreeing with everything they say, and backing them up whenever they’re on one side of an argument. Basically kissing arse. This looks bad.

I’ll use the example from a couple of years ago, when @stephenFry was mildly offended by a remark from one of his followers who claimed he was boring, which he just happened to spot amongst the trillion or so mentions he receives every day.

Obviously, the tweeter never thought that his comments would register, and he’d never intended to hurt our beloved national treasure. In a rash reaction, @stephenfry resigned to never tweet again!

The moment Stephen Fry saw the offending tweet

But what was quite sickening to watch afterwards was the way my twitter stream filled up with people simpering and fawning over a man they didn’t know in real life, and some even going as far as to make threatening comments towards the poster who had offended him!

I unfollowed a lot of people that day.

That’s maybe a bad example, because it’s such a freak set of circumstances, but it does the job of highlighting the fact that Twitter has it’s own set of social rules, which are very different to real life. What the poster did was equivalent to following someone around in real life and then commenting that they’re boring!

Following and conversing with people you find interesting is the bread and butter of social media. It’s how the whole thing works. We all like Stephen Fry, so we all naturally jump to his aid when he looks like he’s in trouble. And you’ll find that most people are in agreement because their common ground was the reason they chose to follow them in the first place. It’s just not a place for negativity, and if you really sternly disagree with what someone says, or find them boring, then I would question why you chose to follow them to begin with.

I also noticed a lot of what I perceived to be sockpuppeting. Sockpuppeting is a practice in which you create multiple accounts on forums, and use them to promote yourself or your opinions. It’s frowned upon, but in social media circles, this seems to happen a LOT! People tend to have a twitter stream for their company, their own personal one, and maybe one for their blog.

Again, when I first saw this going on, my first reaction was that it’s highly unethical, especially when these accounts, which you know are operated by the same person, start to retweet each other and even reference the owner of the account in the third person. Again, this looks bad. So what’s social media’s excuse this time?

People use Twitter for many different things, so it’s understandable that, like me, they’ll wear many different hats (or should that be Twats?) When a company has something to announce, they will tweet from their company account, speaking on behalf of the company. This is for the people who follow the company, but don’t necessary know the user. They might re-tweet from their personal account for people who know them personally, but might not follow their company. The rationale behind this is that people can create their own ‘stalker package’ depending on how interested they are in you and your activities.

Because, remember, you aren’t forcing anyone to follow you. They’ve CHOSEN to do so.

It only becomes unethical when people start pretending that they are someone else, something they are not, or when accounts owned by an individual start talking to each other. Everything up to that point is the fault of the individual who decided to follow all of another individuals accounts. This ‘Darker side’ of twitter is very easy to spot, and the ‘Unfollow’ button is jut as easy to click.

This might sound harsh, but your Twitter followers are NOT the same as your friends. There’s a reason they use the term ‘Follow’ instead. Friends are people you know in real life, who you socialise with. The people you follow on Twitter are a means for you to create your personal social media experience. And if you don’t follow someone or engage with them, it’s not because you don’t like them, it’s because they don’t fit into that package.

It’s true, some of your followers you may know in real life, and some of them you may want to get to know in real life, but ultimately it’s just a stream that someone somewhere is firing their thoughts down, which you have CHOSEN to listen to. It can be, as I have discovered, great fun and incredibly useful.

The realization hit me while I was researching this article, that all the references and advice I’d gained were through Twitter. THAT is the beauty of social media. Nicholas Lovell (@nicholaslovell) summed it up perfectly, with “Follow those you find interesting, unfollow those you don’t”.

If you are on Twitter, and you hate it, then you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.

Stu xxx

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 6:17 pm

    Was reading this article and finding it interesting and useful. Then was surprised (and pleased) that you quoted me in it.

    Would have been even nicer if you’d linked my name to


    • September 8, 2010 6:27 pm


      Be good if I could find a link back to the tweet where you said that too, but a paraphrase from memory will have to do!

      Thanks for the thumbs up, I was quite tentative about this post.

  2. September 8, 2010 7:43 pm

    Good read Stu. As one of those people has a tendency to overtweet at times I reckon some sort of “Display x posts per hour” option would be good. There are some people who I really want to keep following and only sometimes does their feed get a little overwhelming.

    Another problem I’ve found is that if you have met someone in real life and chose not to follow them, it can make for uncomfortable conversation when they ask why. For some folks there’s little or no distinction between how they treat twitter and how they treat facebook. For me there’s a world of difference.

    • September 8, 2010 11:08 pm

      I’ve had the same problem, where I like someone but their tweets just aren’t something I want to read. I’d hope that if they read this, they’d understand that it’s not because we don’t like them. Followers and Friends are different things!

  3. Charles permalink
    September 8, 2010 9:09 pm

    TL;DR but I read this link on Facebook thus blowing the entire thing out of the water… or something. 🙂

    • September 8, 2010 11:07 pm

      Yeah, it’s a Twitter thing really, but Facebook is relevant too. Do you tweet much?

  4. Steve permalink
    September 8, 2010 11:58 pm

    @ Stu: Yes, it should be Twats ;p

    @ Charles: TL;DR? Is 140 characters really the attention span of humanity these days? I don’t know you so I don’t know if you were joking, but I think it’s kinda funny and shocking in about equal measure either way 🙂

    Good article. It sort of helps me prepare for the day I actually find a use for Twitter (or one of its successors, perhaps) and sign up – good to get some insight into what that world entails without having to actually go and live there. Me? I still check my MySpace page and update my LiveJournal, and I miss Geocities, so I should probably just shuffle off into the twilight of my own obsolescence. Get off my lawn!

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