The mystery behind FOLLOW and UNFOLLOW on Twitter revealed

Twitter TIt looks like the cat is out of the bag today. If you live and breathe Twitter like I do you probably saw that the accounts: @PoliticalUpdate, @ThreeOclockPot and @twtr_us were suspended. It seems these accounts were suspended possibly due to a blog post by Louis Gray which you can read here, titled “The Newest Annoyance on Twitter: Follow and Refollow Spam.

While Mr. Gray did an awesome job at providing some excellent data proving these accounts were run by robots (programming scripts) that seemed to follow and unfollow him at the same time every day, he sort of missed the boat on why this is happening.

Quoted from Mr. Gray’s blog:

So what is the benefit of such a clearly robotic practice? Is the idea that the follow notifications are a form of advertising, giving me a chance to see their name more than once, and increasing the times I’ll go to check out their Twitter page? Do they also think we’re naive enough to not notice?

No, these robots, accounts or scripts could care less whether a specific account notices them or not. They aren’t excited you’re getting email notifications and they don’t hope you check out their Twitter page, blog or whatever their promoting.

These accounts are strictly after eyeballs. Let me explain… If you take a look at the Twitter Top 1,000 list at TwitterHolic.com you would have noticed these accounts at the top of most of the movers and shakers Followers list. Mr. Gray was correct that this is a form of advertising. You can see Mr. Gray’s current Twitter ranking on Twitterholic here:

Louis Gray Twitterholic Ranking

Now really, this isn’t the greatest example of trying to explain this but you can see Mr. Gray is ranked #956 out of the Top 1,000 on Twitter as of March 8th, 2009. A better example is to look at some people in the Top 100. If someone were to FOLLOW and UNFOLLOW all of the Top 1,000 multiple times a day, just like the banned accounts mentioned above did, they would find themselves at the top of the Twitter accounts Follower list.

Number One Follower CNN Breaking NewsLet’s try this out so you understand what I’m talking about. I’m going to go and follow the #1 ranked Twitter user http://twitter.com/cnnbrk, they have 421,913 followers. As soon as I follow them I’m the user at the top of the list. See the pretty graphic I’ve included.

Do you get it yet? Some of you might not, so let’s put it this way. Let’s compare Twitter accounts to real estate. The Twitter accounts with the most followers are the most prime real esate because those accounts are getting the most eyeballs and activity. So if you can put your name in front of 20 users (the amount of followers per page) several times a day, then these robot accounts have done their job.

Now take these robot accounts and multiply this example by all Top 1,000 Twitter accounts and you have 20,000 potential views on each account until it gets pushed off of the first follower page of each account.

Essentially what you have is free advertising and promotion. It’s similar to going over to Google Adwords and buying a sponsored placement for the keyword, “Twitter” and every time someone searches for Twitter on Google they see your account. Obviously, Google charges per click, so it’s a MUCH better deal to just go and FOLLOW and UNFOLLOW all high profile accounts and wallah, FREE Advertising for your Twitter account.

Now another reason someone might do this is to hit their target market. If you’re in the news business, you would target all major Twitter news accounts, like CNN Breaking and be at the top of their follower list since that is your targeted demographic. If you’re an up and coming rapper, it might be smart to be at the top of @iamdiddy’s Twitter Follower list. (As a side note: I absolutely love Sean Jean clothing, founder is @iamdiddy)

Anyway, I hope that explains the “mystery” behind this practice. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with this practice as long as it’s performed by addicted and caffeinated humans. However, the accounts mentioned above were suspended because they had an automated system doing the dirty deed for them at the same time every day, multiples times.

Let me know if you have any question by either leaving a comment here on the blog or dropping me a DM or @ message on Twitter over @webaddict.

Peace, Love and Chicken Grease,
- webaddict

webaddict
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61 Responses to “The mystery behind FOLLOW and UNFOLLOW on Twitter revealed”

  1. David said:

    nice post, and great extra effort taking to include some related images.

  2. Louis Gray said:

    That is a very good theory. If I am your most recent follower, then anybody who clicks through to see your followers will have my ID at the top. Thanks for the detail and strong article.

    And yes, I’m glad they are suspended. :)

  3. JBMOvies said:

    Thanks for explaining this. Might explain why certain marketing people follow and unfollow me once a week. A little annoying though for someone to do it to an account more than twice.

    Personally think there are better was to market something than to annoy people with unfollow refollow.

  4. ALRADY40 said:

    Wow that is wild… I would never have figued that out.. Would simply posting to bunches of people though on the high following list not do the same thing.. For instance post a post to SHAQ or to BUKISA etc… wouldn’t that have same effect because people would see your ID over and over.. .

    Go gently – I am smart about some things but a dunce about others.. :)

  5. Nick said:

    this is extremely interesting. I think it’s interesting because I’ve never thought of it…nice job.

  6. Diana said:

    if all that multiple robot spamming went into building good quality relationships between people, I think that it would be interesting to analyse the data of the results of both and see where the most value lies.

    Things are changing and value, information, ethics and recommendations are going to be the ‘new way’ in my opinion. The other ways of thinking are what got us into the current financial. environmental and human rights situation we are now in.

    I applaud twitter for the job they have done so far of keeping the play clean!

  7. faryl said:

    I didn’t think of that angle! I’d thought the bots were counting on people having autofollow set up, and did it as a way to get more followers – hadn’t occurred to me that this doesn’t account for the multiple repeat follow/unfollows though!

    Thanks for putting this post together!

  8. lgolloher said:

    Thank you for demystifying the follow, no follow trend. Even with relatively few followers, I’ve experienced this and have been perplexed. As marketers continue to evaluate the value of social media, one important consideration is to install analytics that will prevent advertisers from being duped by Twitter spammers.

  9. audrey chernoff said:

    After someone follows and unfollows me twice, I use the blocking feature. I didn’t realize some of these were bots, but I did see that pot of coffee a lot on everyone’s list.

  10. BrenDB said:

    It still does not account for mysterious and sudden unfollow events between people you would never unfollow and vice versa.

    Many people have had issues with accounts unfollowing people with out their doing it – perhaps this is connected in some way.

    All I know is it is frustrating either way. If someone chooses to unfollow refollow and such- I will probably end up blocking them.

  11. Bill Sebald said:

    Great perspective. I thought it was about the chance to get more eyeballs via establish real connections (auto-responses, timed tweets and scripted DMs) – didn’t think of this angle. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some other Twitter tools that work the same way. Depending on those tools, this could provide some SEO value too. Maybe this could lead to search spam… ack… my mind is wondering. Something worth thinking about.

  12. Brian said:

    Glad you provided a place I can send people who ask about this. Explaining the reasoning behind someone using this kind of marketing technique gets old quick.

  13. Jason carlin said:

    Wow, that was actually really consescending.

  14. Warren Whitlock said:

    seems like a pretty good guess as to what is going on.

    just a guess of course.. not an statement of policy that we can use to predict what would happen to others.

    from what I see.. you are 100% in agreement with what I’ve been saying.. NO RULES.. they can try to use/abuse the stream, but what they did was ANNOYING.

    Twitter, as in non-Twitter life (I think that still exists) is better when you connect with people. “eyeballs” is “potential views” not a real connection.

    Ultimately, meaningful connections is what we are all looking for

  15. joelmackey said:

    @David Thank you very much!

    @Louis Gray I’m greatful you came and posted a comment Louis. You’re a stand up guy for saying all the nice things you did, thanks a lot for adding to the discussion and for your original work which was solid and revealing. :P

    @JBMovies Thanks for your input. We can’t control how people decide to market but we can try to understand it at least.

    @ALRADY40 I think you’re referring to someone @ replying to a Top Twitter account. This really wouldn’t work because the only people that see the @ reply are within the original user’s stream, so their exposure is only their original follower account which definitely doesn’t compare to 20,000 views.

    @Nick Thanks! :D

    @Diana You’re getting a little political there so I’d prefer to stay out of that rabbit hole. Thanks for your comment. Introducing the evaluation of success of this is interesting although it seems the result was suspension. Thanks for the input!

    @faryl Thank you, the robot accounts could be counting on auto-follow if they are taking the tactics outside of the Top 1,000. Otherwise, it seems to me to be pretty obvious what is going on.

    @lgolloher Introducing analytics, interesting point. So far, there isn’t much advertising on Twitter to protect from being duped. This is definitely a future concern.

    @audrey You got it, the block feature would pretty much stop the bot in it’s tracks, for your account anyway.

    @BrenDB You refer to people unfollowing lots of people without their doing. I don’t believe this is just coincidence. More often then not these accounts that have this happen to them are using some type of auto-follow / auto-unfollow script or website and when errors happen on the site or with the Twitter API things go haywire and the end result is lots of unintended unfollows.

    @Bill You are right, the methods are aplenty of manipulation and automation. However, for today, I’m just covering this topic! Good insights. :P

    @Brain Thanks Brian, glad it helps.

    @Jason Carlin I’m sorry you felt the article was condescending… it was definitely not written with that intent. I work with people on all levels of the spectrum. My content is meant for everyone Jason, not elite power users or Internet junkies but every day users of Twitter also that don’t understand all the ins and outs. I have received many personal DM’s thanking me for the clarity and way I approached the subject. Hope that helps! :P

    @Warren Whitlock Warren, I’m honored to have your comments here at my blog. Thanks for stopping by. You are right, I was not advocating rules or trying to encourage any, really just trying to clear up confusion and all the discussion of why things were happening. I think Twitter has a pretty good self regulating system. If people don’t enjoy that user they can block and unfollow. In terms of connection, you’re spot on, the connection with followers is what makes the account valuable. If there is no engagement, someone could have 40,000 followers and be yelling in the dark for the most part. We’re definitely on the same page. Thanks again for your input!

  16. Lisa Logan said:

    I appreciate this astute explanation on WHY this practice is being done, though it’s certainly no ethical step up from the theory Louis suggested. It’s still a spam tactic, albeit a better one for getting many people’s notice each time rather than just one. But yeah, the Twitter gods invented the Block feature to deal with API annoyances like these. Thanks for the info!

  17. R. G. Lanzara said:

    Nice post.

    So blogs work the opposite. I get put last on the comments list…

    But you raise the larger issue about the algorithm or computer bots, because these programs have now invaded almost every aspect of our lives including stock trading, poker, chess, social networks, etc. We’re living in a new age where most of us can not compete against the specific areas controled by these algorithms…

  18. dean said:

    Really enlighting
    http://www.niceweight.com

  19. D. A. Shaver said:

    My twitter account is set to email me when someone follows me so that would just more Spam to add to what I already get every day. This would be much worse though since it would plus my Spam filter. We could never train out filter to only filter out some twitter messages and not others.

  20. Graham Anderson said:

    I would be happier with Twitter if they included a “flag as spammer” button. The process of ” follow Twitter’s spam account, and send us a direct message with the user names of spammers who follow you. We’ll investigate!” is not intuitive.

    Anyone would think that Twitter wants to minimise the number of reports they have to investigate…

  21. Steve Reeves said:

    Awesome insight – thanks. I learn more every day thanks to the generosity of guys like you who take the time to share.

    Appreciate it.

    Steve

  22. Uber.la’s 1-2-3 Guide To Twitter: GETTING REAL with TWITTER | uber.la said:

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  23. Fran and Rowena said:

    Thank you for explaining this practice. We did not know about it.

    That’s a lot of work to “play” the system. It’s probably not unexpected, though. We’ve got to believe that there will always be people out there who will work the system to their advantage.

  24. Chris said:

    Yeah, I just noticed this practice this weekend.

    With me though, it seems like there has been a lot more people following me, and then unfollowing almost immediately. I think this is a way to get people to follow you, without having to follow them.

    Since each follow sends an email my way, I usually click through to their Twitter and follow them if they seem interesting. I’ve noticed though, there were a bunch of new follows for me in my inbox, but checking on these users, I noticed that they were not following me when I checked.

    I’m guessing the greater the amount of followers to those you are following, makes you look like an authority or something.

  25. LoneWolf said:

    Interesting article. Are there enough people viewing follower lists to make this a worthwhile pursuit? I rarely do that but I do periodically.

    If this is the case then maybe Twitter could some up with some way of randomizing the order of follower lists. Maybe have the lists alphabetical but starting with a different letter of the alphabet on any give day.

  26. Brent Nau said:

    This really puts the spotlight on this type of minipulation that is going on. I think people (cough…robots) forget that it is not about the number of Followers, but how you interact with your network.

  27. David Niall Wilson said:

    It is still pointless if, when you are in people’s face, all they find by clicking through is a robotic script trying to get followers. I can imagine people FOLLOWING just to add to their numbers (though that too is silly) but I can’t imagine any actually valid, useful “eyeball” space created by this because at the same time it puts you at the top of the lists, it irritates the hell out of the people you are trying to catch the eye of.

    I block these accounts immediately…just as a personal preference, and I’m pretty pleased that Twitter suspended the accounts, as the entire point is personal connections.

    “What are you doing now?” NOTHING…I’m a robot script annoying people, but since I don’t really exist, you know? Not doing anything.

    Just my thoughts, of course…

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  29. Jason Carlin said:

    Not to belabor the point… I was reacting to your rather curt assertion that Mr Gray had “missed the boat”, followed closely by your asking your reader if he “got it yet.” Not a crime, and certainly not the most condescending bit of internet copy I read all day, but there it is.

    Useful info, nonetheless.

  30. joelmackey said:

    @Jason Carlin You know Jason, now you’re the one “missing the boat”, this post was not written AT or FOR Louis Gray, it was just written in response to his analysis and covering the issue. My style of writing is conversational. When I stated, “Do you get it yet?” it was speaking to the reader. Since you don’t get me or understand the way I communicate, I’d prefer you take your misinterpretations and judgments elsewhere on someone else’s blog. Thanks!

  31. ptamaro said:

    I guess I still don’t take tweeting all that seriously, but it’s still a lot of fun. I have noticed that my number of followers is almost constantly changing, and I do know that you can “game the system” to a degree…

    Thanks for the insight, great post. Lot’s of juicy comments to think about as well. Hmn…

  32. Moxie Mo said:

    What a great article and explanation on why these spammers do this! It’s annoyed me to no end and I couldn’t figure out where there intent was besides annoying me!

    I love Twitter and people like me, the Moxie Mo, who has a really successful podcast on Mevio (Moxie Mo Show) works hard like I’m sure all of you do in getting new followers AND following new people. I love meeting new people and exchanging ideas, etc and Twitter is my mode of choice.

    So follow me friends – why? Because I’m MOXIE!
    http://www.twitter.com/jeffmccord
    http://www.twitter.com/moxiemo

  33. dawntrenee said:

    Thanks for the great explanation. There think of something new tomorrow, Im sure. Keep us informed.

  34. Eric Matas said:

    Remember the “Yellow Pages” that you used to find on your doorstep?

    Nearly every category had several “AA Awesome Company” listings because they appear alphabetically at the top in the category.

    Silly. And smart. ;-P Fun read–thanks, @tweric

  35. Kate Robins said:

    Makes a lot of sense and thanks for taking the time to look into it. What kind of havoc did that have on the tweet effect analyzers? I’ve always felt kind of sorry for the foiks at the back of Mr. Tweet’s line of prospects and will make an effort to check out the back of the room to see who’s there.

  36. Sheryl Loch said:

    I am glad you saw it this way (be on the top of the persons followers page), because that had not ever crossed my mind.
    I just figured they were going for the auto follow or the click to see the profile of your new follower.

    I do know that I have been getting several of the people that follow & unfollow, a week later they follow again. I think this is because I had not returned the initial follow & they figured I would give in. Guess I’m just not social that way. LOL!

    Thanks for the new insight. I did not find your article negative or condescending in any way. I saw it as an addition to Mr.Gray’s post.

  37. Twitter Follow - Unfollow Revealed said:
  38. Nick D said:

    you mean UNFOLLOW then FOLLOW – the headline as it is reads like people follow you then unfollow straight away; which is obvious.

    nearly didnt bother reading it.

  39. Links, We Got Links | Venture Chronicles said:

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  40. Doron said:

    I’ve noticed recently that when some people follow me and I finally get around to check my email and follow back after several days, they re-follow me.
    So either they’re practicing what you’ve discovered or deleting me from their list because I didn’t follow back right away. I’ll have to watch more closely the next time it happens. Either way, it’s poor form and not a way to build trust with tweeple.

  41. LifeofMatt said:

    Sounds great, but why is it okay for humans to do it but not for them to automate it?

    I see getting a script to do it as the same thing as using a script to submit your site to search engines… you’re going to do it anway, so might as well automate it… making a rule that people HAVE to waste their time seems silly to me.

    The practice should either be:

    A. People aren’t allowed to follow and unfollow simply for placement (this seems the best solution to me… it’s gaming the system).

    B. People are allowed to follow and unfollow, and are allowed to use scripts to automate the process.

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  43. WebBanshee said:

    Great! As i am just starting looking at twitter, i did not know about this.Very interesting.Doing this to promote business has a smack of a pushing/penetrant marketing attidude.But its not the end of the world.

  44. FlashTweet.com said:

    Great article! Although, I don’t believe bulk unfollowing people and following several people at once is spamming. Just as long as you do it moderately.

  45. kai said:

    I’ve heard about REAL people doing this. Do they get banned as well?

  46. John said:

    Twitter will ban real people if they have many negative reports of spam.

  47. cocktail mixing said:

    This really got me thinking! Must be a good article when it can do that.

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  49. warren said:

    This is really some helpful minipulation showing. The robot may not care about how many followers you get, but rather care about how good your website is.

  50. Debby Bruck said:

    I love what you’ve written. Thank you for all great articles of enlightenment, plus the “Baraka’ movie recommendation. Learning Twitter is an art, and you seem to have mastered it. Thanks for insights.

    If anyone loves homeopathy or is interested in learning this incredible energy medicine please visit homeopathy world community. Peace. Debby Bruck

  51. New Age said:

    I Really Love Reading Your Blog. Excellent. Keep up the great work!

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  53. AZ John said:

    Great explanation. Rather clever way to get free advertising but very deceptive. Thanks.

  54. FlashTweet said:

    There is also a great program called http://www.flashtweet.com! Check it out! =)

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  56. RobKohr said:

    Try the twitter unfollow greasemonkey script:
    http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/47537

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  59. cyphertek said:

    Its true, I stumbble Unpon this issue my self, when ever I followed the most popular people on twitter I gainned manny followers for a few days.

  60. Darlena Coppersmith said:

    you have a good sense of humour.

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