Philippa Thomas Online

Life and leadership coaching

When it’s not good to be followed


I love talking on Twitter. I love being followed on Twitter. But I’m realising that more doesn’t always mean better.  Which is why I’ve just cut my numbers.  

Am I behind the curve here? I wonder how many of you already act to filter out fake follows.  

I noticed on Tuesday that something odd was going on.

I’ve been getting a flurry of followers with similar names and similar profiles – @axxxx101 and so on. They all spend their time sending short inane tweets to big media accounts: “hiya there”, “weather looking good”, “well i don’t know about that”, “what’s happening now” etc.

I’ve also had a spate of new followers with locked accounts and no tweets to their name. And they’re still coming, half a dozen more as I’ve been writing this note. 
I’d heard about the shabby practice of buying followers by the hundreds and thousands.  But I started thinking for the first time, what do you do when new fellowers feel more like unwelcome guests?

As I began searching, I saw this New Statesman blogpost, “Does Louise Mensch have 80,000 fake followers?”, posted by @AlexHern in July.  I have a few thousand followers; @LouiseMensch has tens of thousands, and certainly doesn’t need to buy more. But reading about her predicament made me wonder if my account is one of many being used as a proxy tool, a handy ‘follow’ for the producers of fake Twitter accounts seeking to look real. 

Are there Spam HQs out there which hand out names by the hundred to their workers and tell them to get clicking? 
I’ve always blocked obvious spam and porn. I’ve also always advised Twitter newbies to dip their toes in the water, and feel free to “lurk” awhile before they actually tweet.  So I really don’t want to block followers who are there in earnest, but only on occasion, or there in the twitter stream just to see what’s flowing by. What next? 
It’s a handy rule of thumb that the best thing to do with social media problems is to be social. And another one that if you’re worrying about a common problem, someone else will already have put in the time and effort to think it through!  

I messaged twitter guru @SueLlewellyn at @ultrasocialuk to ask if she could guess what was going on. She had – almost immediately – both suggestions and solutions.

Sue ran my account through statuspeople, which said my account had 7% fake followers, 42% dormant followers and 51% good.  As a savvy social media type who practices what she preaches her equivalent stats are currently 2: 15: 83. 

She’s already blogged about how to spot a celebrity fake at the BBC College of Journalism, and she advised me to carry out regular cleanups with services like @twitcleaner which checks out those you follow and @manageflitter . I went to both sites online, used the free basic account and came up with similar ratios to the statuspeople analysis. 

They did help me identify the fakes, though once I’d spotted certain patterns, some stood out at a glance.  But they’re blunt instruments. They all told me that my “fake followers” included people I know, and whose opinions matter to me – they’re just very occasional tweeters. (That’s you, dear coffee critic brother-in-law). A lot of the accounts that statuspeople tagged as dormant are again known to me, but happen not to be journalists or politicians or other professional talkers. So, handy tools, not the full DIY treatment. 

So here are some of my new housekeeping rules on Twitter. And since I’m obviously more naive than I’d thought, other suggestions are welcome.
It’s not all about numbers. Learn to filter your followers – cut out the fakes, the porn and the spam. 
I’ve started blocking those with locked accounts who don’t tweet, or follow but have no followers – it could be spam or porn trying to look respectable by following genuine accounts.

I’ve started blocking those who send the same sales tweets time and again. 

I’ve started blocking those whose tweets look normal on the surface, but at second glance, are programmed. If they’re splattering a limited menu of meaningless comments out into cyberspace, they’re probably not the real deal. 

But this is starting to sound snobbish, isn’t it? And I don’t mean it that way.  

I don’t think Twitter users should have to send out a stream of commentary, or check in every hour or every day. You don’t ‘report for duty’ on social media!

I still want to be followed by people who might find my stuff interesting (thank you), but happen to use the service in completely different ways.

I just don’t want to be followed by robots. 
And so next time I talk about social media, perhaps at a BBC workshop, I’ll change my line.

If you’re new to Twitter, just being there is probably not enough.

You want to avoid being blocked by someone you follow, or even reported by them as a potential spammer.  

If you’ve taken the trouble to sign up, look human: don’t be an egghead, put up an image.  Unless you’re dealing in classified intelligence, or have been unfairly targeted, why lock your account? 

And why not say something, even once a week? Just so we know you are really out there. 

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “When it’s not good to be followed

  1. Twitter is different for each user. For example, I follow some people for a while, and consider my timeline to be a sort of holding bay to see if I like your tweets. If I do, then I unfollow you to get you off my timeline, and put you in a categorised list that twitter provides.

    This means that I collect together funny tweeters and their funny tweets in a list specially for that and them. I put political ones together, local ones and so on. I even have a list of French tweets and ones of Italian tweets, because I have friends abroad.

    It’s terribly organised and very easy to use, but it does mean that it looks like I have unfollowed you, which I technically have, but actually have not if you see what I mean. Now this has got me into trouble.

    There are sites out there that people sign up for to track their followers and unfollowers. These sites can detect fake accounts and do all sorts of other things as well. I get some miffed tweets as a result of unfollowing – and a LOT of people will unfollow me if I am not following them!

    I know that a lot of phone apps for twitter do not even show follower/ following numbers, and I like that because the numbers mean nothing to me. I would recommend those apps to everyone.

    However, as I said, twitter is unique to each user, and some take it all more seriously than it possibly ought to be. They sign up for favestar, market themselves and accuse others of “stealing tweets”. Honestly!

    Bots follow me offering to provide zillions of followers – why would I want that (especially as I use splitweet for twitter in my browser and have no idea whatsoever of these numbers.

    My advice to you (if I may be so bold), and in fact everyone else, is get the fun out of twitter, enjoy twitter, it is not necessary, and it is not important. Real or fake? does it matter if the twitter experience is enhanced?

  2. Hi Tina and thanks for your comments. Your experience is a good example of why it’s not all about numbers. (I’ve also unfollowed some good people who tend to tweet at volume, and put them into lists instead.)

    And yes, I take to heart your advice : “get the fun out of twitter”.

    I think what bugs me is the idea of my account and many many others being used by proxy to bolster fake accounts for dodgy purposees. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s small beer!


  3. Excellent post. It’s not snobbish to check out new followers before following them back. I never automatically follow back unless it’s someone I’ve already exchanged tweets with. If more people were as choosy, the spammers and fake accounts would be ineffectual and maybe die out.

  4. Personally, I think this is a good thing. I’m a bit concerned when I see someone with a large number of people they follow– especially if they don’t have engaging content. Twitter is about engagement and networking– it is a social network after all. Having said that, following a large number of people isn’t always a bad thing. I love to follow new people, particularly those who Tweet about social media. I manage a large number of followers using Twitter lists– putting the people I find particularly interesting into my “awesome” list. Less regularly, I’ll check my main Twitter stream, and perhaps add some cool people to this list.

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