The Art Of No

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When is it ok to say "no" to someone in Social Media? If someone follows you on Twitter, do you have to follow them back? If they join your group, do you have to join theirs as well?

Chris Brogan (co-author with Julien Smith of the upcoming book, Trust Agents, and co-host of the Media Hacks Podcast) has a great Blog post today titled, Quid Pro No, where he questions when it is ok to say "no" in a world of Facebook friends and Twitter followers without insulting anybody:

"I was asked to join someone’s new social media application, but because I have a lot of stuff on the go, I politely declined. What I got back as a parting shot was, ‘Thanks. I’ll still buy your book.’ It left me feeling a bit awkward. Do we expect reciprocal behavior all the time? Is it easy enough to see that I participate as much as I can in both directions, and that it’s not all about me?"

If you think that Brogan’s Blog post poses a very serious question about how scalable individuals are in a world where any one person can have hundreds of thousands of followers, you should read the great and diverse comments that follow his Blog post. The reality of being able to join everything and follow everyone creates one big torrent of content that will – without question – turn the conversations that should have more thought and time dedicated to them by certain individuals into a great big sea of follow requests and group requests that will take so much time to wade through that most individuals will never be able to become any kind of active participant. It is something I Blogged about at length in April of last year: The Trouble With Twitter – Confessions Of A Twitter Snob.

Maybe we all have to simply admit that just because we are equally connected, it does not mean that our respective content is of equal value to others.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: if we buy a book by Tom Peters, does that mean that Tom Peters should – at the very least – buy something from everyone who bought a book from him? It does seem a little ridiculous. Now, just because something is free, cheap or easier to do than buy a business book, does that make any more sense?

Obviously not.

My interest may be your interests. Your interests may not be my interests.

This is why the concept of "what is a friend online?" gets constantly debated. The truth is, most of us can only have a handful of real friends (it’s just the way it is). If you are taken by the content published here, why is it so difficult to swallow that the content you’re producing may have little to no relevance to me? Or, maybe your content is of relevance, but I simply don’t like your slant and take on things? If you’re getting the value from what’s happening here, why do you need my validation on your content? Isn’t it enough that each day there are other individuals following you, requesting online friendship or joining your group?

We don’t have to say "no". 

If someone does not follow, friend or join you, they’re not saying "no" to you after you said "yes" to them. It’s not rejection and you should not take it as a slight against your ego. In a highly personalized world of publishing, understand that it’s not a world of "no" at all.


If you’re joining this conversation on the sole basis that you hope I will join yours, the fundamental reason you connected to me is flawed. I follow those who provide value in my life. I don’t care if they follow me back. I’m getting value from them and what they’re publishing. I can also add my perspective on their space and share it with their audience. The value in connecting to them is not for the reciprocation, it’s in what they’re saying/doing and I what I can learn or share with others from them. I don’t go to a movie and then assume that the director should connect with me because of how much I loved the flick and talked about it to others.

Isn’t getting value out of what someone publishes enough? Why do they also have to follow, friend, link to or buy from those that are following them as well?

That all being said, listening to what others are saying about you, your company, brand, products and services (and responding) is still a must.


  1. I’ve never subscribed to the concept of you-follow-me-i-follow you/let’s both be friends. It’s great when people want to follow you/be your friend but I think you should have a personal quota of digital engagement so you can follow, engage and participate..or, at least, follow the conversation.

  2. Loved the post. And from personal experience, it is hard to say no sometimes due to “reciprocal behavior.” I have found that in real life but in my online social networking world, no is easier.
    I have recently declined a number of friend request on Facebook because they are people my sister knows, who is not on Facebook. It was at that point that I looked at my list to see what information was being shared that was truly relevant and of interest to me.
    I think some people don’t look at the snub as related to the content their may or may not share but associate it to if they are relevant.

  3. I never understood this reciprocal concept. I feel it when people asked to follow their fan page or become a member of their group. There is that much time in a day, I have to choose how I will spent it. Obviously, I devoted my time to people I think I can learn from and with whom I like to talk.

  4. Hi Mitch, a nice post and long overdue. Reciprocity is certainly a powerful concept. I recall Robert Cialdini once saying there is not a culture on this planet that does not train its members in reciprocity. Your suggestion to focus on the content seems like a good idea and is perhaps a simple and powerful way to manage the the sense of obligation we sometimes feel when people ad us. I have over the past few months felt concerned when I see folks in my network proudly proclaim they are returning the favor to people who have stopped following them. I guess there is nothing wrong with this if your reasons for going on-line are related to size of community (reciprocity can be a useful tool for increasing the number of followers, and that reciprocal “follow” is the behavior we count on). People are free to build that kind of community if they want. I much prefer a community where reciprocity revolves around sharing content. I appreciate the added reach and leverage that a strong community offers to my search for current and useful knowledge. So perhaps at the end of the day we all draw upon the reciprocity principle, but the way in which we do so says something important about the nature and values of our community. It is a choice we should explicitly make, and I hope this nice post helps people think through that choice if they so choose. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Even more fun than figuring out when to say no the first time, is knowing when to stop saying yes.
    We see this in customer relations all the time, the give-a-mouse-a-cookie concept takes hold and once you’ve given someone something they asked for which is out of the norm, it gets harder to say no the next time. There’s a lot of backlash involved in putting your foot down and saying “No More Deals.”
    When do we stop following people online? If they disappear, and their services with them, the answer is clear. But when the information is no longer useful for us, or if the perspective of the business/persona changes to something we don’t like, and we have a personal relationship with the voice behind the business, how do we find the best way to ditch the business and keep the friend – or vice versa?
    I’ve spent fully half my life dealing with the internet at this point (I know, I’m a young’un) and I still can’t find a catch-all behaviour for these situations. Complicated is an understatement.

  6. What a great post. Content really IS still king, even in our social media world, if we subscribe to this notion. And I like it! I’ve been going through that quagmire via a LinkedIn group I joined where the founder had the bright idea of inviting everyone to post their twitter info. The savvy folks very quickly made that brighter by posting their twitter ID with a brief description of what they tweet for or about… and the even savvier ones added what tweeted content they will (or won’t) follow. It takes the whole personal aspect of who’s following whom right out of the equation.

  7. Mitch –
    Great post. I think a lot of this comes down to the concept of value, which is just so important in the social media space. You’re exposed to SO MUCH MORE content now that – at least for me – one of my huge filters is what can provide me with ongoing value (and I also strive to be adding ongoing value to my own audience).
    By it’s very nature, this means that some relationships may not be reciprocal, because what I determine as valuable may not be what some else determines as valuable and vice versa.
    When we have thousands (millions!) of options for content and information consumption available to us each day, we have to parce it out.
    That’s the way I think about content. Some of the connections you were talking about above come down to relationship however. If you’re past the point of simply information filtering (I would say this is what a lot of people in our field use Twitter as, for instance), you’re presented with many connection requests that are based on relationship, whether professional or personal. This is when other goals come into play, and I feel these are generally dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

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