The Dirty Little Secret Of The Twitter Elite

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Just because they’re following you on Twitter, it does not mean that they are paying attention to you.

In a world of Social Media, mass collaboration, sharing and conversations, does anyone find it in the least bit interesting how little of that is really going on among those who rack up the largest followings and conjure up the most mass media attention? When Twitter first came out, there was some commonly held philosophies around following back those who are following you (almost as a common courtesy). The problem was, as more and more people joined the online social network and communications platform, the harder it was to follow back everybody and still be able to be engaged in any real level of "conversation" (you can read more in the Blog post: The Trouble With Twitter – Confessions Of A Twitter Snob).

Most people are in it for themselves. 

Personal anecdote: as the book launch for Six Pixels of Separation nears, I had some high level conversations with others who have books coming out in terms of formulating some kind of marketing initiative around sharing and helping one another reach our goals by combining efforts. Upon listing out many of the people with books in the marketplace (or those who have a book coming out), someone sniped back that one of the individuals mentioned actually doesn’t help others out at all. They’re in it for themselves.

It should give you pause.

On countless occasions you’ll read a tweet where someone says, "I can’t believe @internet_celebrity is following me!" (keep in mind we’re not discussing those real world celebrities who either follow everybody, but never respond or those that have hundreds of thousand of followers but who follow back only a handful). So, how do these Twitter elite really manage hundreds of thousands of followers and conversations?

They’re simply filtering you out.

And that is the reality. With Twitter’s open API, it has given rise to many third-party applications (like TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop) that enable a Twitter user to create groups, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. Very few of the Twitter elite ever look at their full Twitter stream. They’re creating a group for their handful of "real" friends or people they want to be connected to. They’re also using the amazing power of Twitter Search to create alerts for their personal name, their company, brands and services. This way, if anyone does mention them (whether they’re following them or not), they can be notified and respond as if they’re really paying attention to their full Twitter stream.

The next generation of the Social Web is all about filters and aggregators, so don’t be insulted.

Countless Blog posts and Podcast rants have covered the discussion that a real personal brand is not scalable, so this is what it comes down to. People have finite time and limited ability to engage full-on in conversations (afterall, they do have to earn a living at some point), so the individual who can best manage their personal brand and the myriad of conversations is faced with the reality of having to be ruthless in their Social Media diet.

The bigger question is this: how much longer can we continue to use the words "Social Media" if every day, the majority of the power users are doing everything they can to filter out and aggregate their personal preferences – essentially rendering them less social?


  1. Excellent points, Mitch–one of the biggest things to remember in my opinion is that if you really want to build relationships (either with “internet celebs” or the rest of us), heading out and doing in-person networking is just as important as building an online presence. Anyone can amass a few thousand Twitter followers if they’re really dedicated to the task, but building relationships requires a bit more groundwork.

  2. These are all valid points, Mitch, but also kind of a “duh” statement. If people who have a few hundred or a few thousand followers can’t keep up and use TweetDeck or some other filtering system to organize their stream, how much more will a celebrity have to do that, with dozens or hundreds of thousands of followers?
    As for most of them being in it for themselves, well . . . “duh” again. That’s their job. Their brand just happens to be their person, and they have to manage it the best way they can, which usually means turning Twitter into a broadcast channel more then an interactive channel.
    Of course there are exceptions to this, the most notable I can think of being Alyssa Milano and Shaq, who actually use it to communicate with their fan base most of the time.
    I only follow a very small handful of celebrities because A) for the most part I don’t know or care about who they are, and B) for the most part they’re just in it to promote themselves.
    But I wouldn’t fault them for it – they’re just running their business the best way they know how (even if it DOES run contrary to the “add value to your community” mantra that we [thankfully] seem to be moving towards these days).

  3. Excellent points, Mitch–one of the biggest things to remember in my opinion is that if you really want to build relationships (either with “internet celebs” or the rest of us), heading out and doing in-person networking is just as important as building an online presence. Anyone can amass a few thousand Twitter followers if they’re really dedicated to the task, but building relationships requires a bit more groundwork.

  4. I’m so glad someone was honest about this! More than once I have put up questions on twitter such as, “Hey social media friends, I need some advice about yada yada.” Not once has anyone ever actually offered me any real advice. Instead all I get are 10 more “social media gurus” following me. Well, “gurus” show me what you got! Actually answer my questions or engage in a conversation with me. Just knowing how to run a search query and auto-follow me does NOT make you a guru. (oh and if you are following more people than follow you, go back and learn PR101.)

  5. You just touched on one of the most important points about Twitter, but dropped it, just as a previous author I respect touched on affiliate marketing but then allowed that it was respectable. Is anyone going to stand up and say that being in it for yourself, that duping others to spend money chasing impossible dreams is immoral and a cancer in the soul of America? Is anyone going to say that treating everyone one you relate to as a means to your personal aggrandizement instead of an end in themselves, is anyone else going to say that this makes a mockery of “In God we Trust”?
    Twitter started with some attempt at community, and there are still people who actually like to talk to each other, network with each other, discover new things and new people from each other. Instead of rolling over and ceding yet another piece of social real estate to the selfish, the immoral and the blind, perhaps we can learn to block out those who are only clanging cymbals or pounding drums in their own names, and promote those we know who truly value and contribute to community. Just a thought . . .

  6. Agree, Mitch. The whole celebrity thing on Twitter is a crock to me. It has also oversold the service to people who have expectations of Twitter that it can’t fulfill. No, Mrs DesMoines Shut In, you won’t actually “speak” with Oprah on twitter. And so we have Twitter growth but with the number of dormant accounts rising by the thousands every day. A recent study found that a majority of accounts on Twitter had LESS THAN 10 tweets. That doesn’t sound like an active account to me. What you need to do Mitch, is help in the redefinition of Twitter. Because I think it’s needed.

  7. Filters and aggregators are precisely the reason why I don’t use seesmic or tweetdeck or any other tool. Granted, I don’t have thousands (or even one thousand) of followers, but I’m in it to have conversations with people. I use the good old fashioned Twitter web page and/or Twittergadget from my igoogle page. No filtering or segregating people from “want to hear from” to “could care less”. I see no point of making a virtual connection with someone if you’re just going screen them out. This sort of thing is just another way build walls without having to own up to it, which in my mind is dirtier than those who admit it.

  8. The problem with “social media” is that everyone expects that it be different from “real life”. Why on earth should it? Would you go to a cocktail party and actually try to talk to 1000+ in one evening? Of course not! So why would you expect to actually follow 1000+ people on Twitter or have 899 friends in Facebook? How on earth can you engage in real conversations with these people? The answer is: you can’t!
    If you are filtering out who you follow on Twitter, then it’s time to actually unfollow and “de-clutter”. (I find that I can only reasonably follow 30 people or so.) By doing so, you can use social media to actually be more sociable by approaching it as you would in real life: spending time to focus on the quality of the conversation and thus help the relationship grow.
    The true power of social media is not in the quantity of followers or friends or connections (who invented that contest anyway?), but the fact that it transcends geography. You can now engage in a meaningful conversation about your interests with someone on the other side of the planet (whom you might never meet in real life), or you can re-discover long-lost family members on another continent.
    Consider this: my Canadian immigrant Italian mother lost contact with her family when she left Italy in the 60s. Her home village only got phones in the late 70s. I now engage in daily conversations with this same family using Facebook, IM and e-mail.
    This, this is the true power of social media. And it’s pretty awesome.

  9. Guilty as charged. I use TweetDeck and I rarely look at my full Twitter stream. HOWEVER—and I think this is important—I do respond to almost all DMs and most replies. As a result, I am interacting with scores of people I would never know otherwise. If they are interesting enough, then I add them to one of my columns. Then they do get my attention.
    The bottom line is that you have to be interesting to get attention. I don’t think there is any substitute for that. Instead of wondering why someone won’t pay attention to me (which is completely outside my control), I focus on what I can do to be more interesting to more people (completely inside my control).
    Great post. As always!

  10. Thanks, Mitch. Timely and to the point amidst the growing Twitter buzz. For newcomers who want to meet and engage in conversations with Twitter power users the situation is similar to walking into a large, packed room gathering attendees at a convention: people who already know each other as friends or colleagues may introduce themselves and share a few niceties before they return focus to the conversations that matter to them. (Or if you dream of rubbing elbows with celebs and you grabbed an in to an afterparty — do you bring anything that they might care about other than fan count?) Newcomers (I certainly am one) can’t expect everyone/anyone to pay attention if they stand in the corner and state a universal truth-or even announce there is free food in the bar. Twitter has proven invaluable for me: listening to and learning from thought leaders and active participants in my fields of interest, finding new sources of information as well as new connections, engaging in conversation when I’ve something to contribute (use an @reply). Given the way Twitter serves multiple purposes, a personal tweet about my daughter is for the family & friends who’ve connected on this platform or others it reaches elesewhere (Facebook, Friendfeed etc). Starting small and with intent as new connections grow seems only sane and- of course, “I’m in it for me” – the best way to reap it’s real value.

  11. good post Mitch,
    the key message in my mind
    “A real personal brand is not scalable”
    As for impersonal brand scalability, ‘social media’s’ use for business/marketing purposes would depend (IMO) on how the parties come to define the relationship.
    Is it a publication platform – pushing out ‘relevant content’ or is it a gathering place where the brand listens, perhaps initiates or even interjects into the discussion among participants?
    We musn’t loose sight of the the other value elements SM provides beyond the improbability of a 1:1
    that’s the real clean secret

  12. I’ve realized this for quite a long time, but have never seen anyone write about it.
    I think we will be seeing more posts around about the realities of twitter…what it can and can’t do.
    I’m sure you know all about Gartners Hype Cycles…do you think we are officially in the
    #3. “Trough of Disillusionment”
    Yesterday I would of said it’s still somewhere between #1 and #2 (not for all of us) and not at #3, but after reading about Twitter’s growth today…will have to think about it some more

  13. Mitch, I respectfully disagree. Given my hectic schedule, I still scan through my full Twitter stream and I RT tweets that I personally find interesting and/or useful. I have experimented with TweetDeck and Seesmic but I have since reverted back to basic Twitter web interface. I respond to DMs where my name is specifically mentioned and I try to acknowledge most “at� messages.

  14. I think the real culprits are in fact the opposite. Take The Masters golf tournament for example. It has build up a huge following of low volume Twitter users and never ever engages. It simply uses Twitter as a broadcast medium. Or take Frank Rich of the NY Times. Three thousand plus followers and he follows no one back, not even his NY Times colleagues. These folks are using Twitter as a broadcast medium. Then there are people like Tony Sheih at Zappos or Gary Vaynerchuk. The follow and are followed by hundreds of thousands. They always respond and get back to you. So, the fact is you can’t make blatant declarations like this. Even though we all know how to do this and in some cases aren’t even sure of who it is following us. (Many new Twitter users simply follow those with lots of followers in hopes of a follow back or because it’s what you do when you first sign on.) However, you have to look at the individuals. Everyone’s different.

  15. Great post Mitch, and an even better discussion.
    What we’re seeing here is the evolution of yet another online communication platform that will find its way into the future in some form (and not necessarily as Twitter.)
    This will occur through trial and error and through the judgment of members – who will voice their level of satisfaction by staying or leaving.
    That being said, the value of Twitter will always be somewhat in balance with the value that it provides to its members.
    Twitter does offer different types of value to different types of people with different goals.
    Some people are on Twitter simply to meet new and interesting people for conversation. Others use it to try to establish and build a personal brand.
    Some people are on Twitter for a combination of business, networking and pleasure (most successful among these types have a genuine giving attitude.) Some people use Twitter only to sell as affiliates.
    And a small minority will use Twitter for various forms of spam delivery for as long as they can get away with it.
    Personally, I like to use Twitter to: meet new and interesting people; keep up with the latest Internet Marketing/Social Media ideas and news; help others by answering questions, retweeting their interesting posts or links; simply engage in some heartfelt, casual or fun conversation.
    If they need any of the products or services we’re offering, they find us.
    Because the nature of these new social platforms is essentially “social” – the phrase – “when the marketers move in the community moves out” – will always be true.
    Online community members are surprisingly good at filtering out the overly zealous among them, and at sensing something is not right in a social network long before it happens. But the platform itself must also work to protect the community – if they expect to survive.
    People and organizations are still, at this point, successfully using Twitter in an ethical fashion to create new and valuable relationships, generate business and enhance their personal brand.
    Twitter is still manageable, but you’re right, it can be a bit unwieldy in its current state of “follow everybody.”
    Twitter will simply have to evolve to survive.
    But it might just do that ๐Ÿ™‚
    Keep up the great work!

  16. Mitch, funny you should bring this up. Your follower to following ratio is 8.45/1. I follow you. You don’t follow me. I comment on your blog. You don’t comment on mine. You use Twitter to promote everything from your blog to your book. Do I think you’re into this for any other reason than to broadcast yourself? No. I figured that one out a long time ago. What you are is interesting. So I don’t mind. Is it ‘social networking’? No. But as a marketer, it reminds me that what matters is good content. That’s reassuring.

  17. The sad thing is these days, is that most people are on twitter for themselves.. how many affiliate links can you see before you start getting extremely disillusioned with the network..

  18. … on the other hand somebody noted (@guykawasaki) that on Twitter it’s not necessarily who you know but who people think you know that count, hence the liberal use, by some, of the @reply feature.
    — By the way, I love your minimalist spam filter. Brilliant and I want one!

  19. Mitch, I started using Twitter about a month ago. Main purpose was to network with colleagues in the mobile space. Does that mean I am out for myself? Maybe. But we are all out there for what purpose? Simply to help others? Uh, no. It’s a combination of getting the masses to know about you as resource, expert, potential business partner,etc. Once platforms like Twitter are used for business, I don’t see it as a social media platform. It’s more like a networking platform.

  20. Hi Mitch,
    I did at one point download Tweetdeck and Twhirl and had searches and filters and everything set up but then I noticed something. The more 2STRATEGIC” my use of Twitter became, the less interested I became in Twitter. It was sucking the fun right out of it.
    So I reverted back to jumping into my full Twitter stream a few times a day and I love it. Everyday I find interesting information that I would never have even thought of looking for.
    I have also really begun engaging with my followers and with the people I follow. Sometimes, all it takes is a good RT and the next thing you know, you have planted the seed of a new relationship.
    I still use some Twitter apps when i am searching for stuff in particular but I love to dive right into the stream every morning, not knowing what wonders await!
    How many of you still actually !!!enjoy!!! Twitter?

  21. This has been sorta apparent for a long time.. or I mean.. even if someone wasn’t filtering.. if you follow a zillion people how are you not to miss a lot? I mean its just the nature of the stream.. So even without the filtering issue, could you really expect so and so to be paying attention to you?
    I’m no a list celebrity.. but I still filter in tweet deck.. and have been thinking a lot about how I filter, and what kind of tools I’d want for filtering… a long with what a next generation sorta twitter might look like.. and I think there’s a lot that can be done to help the scaling issue.. not fix it in anyway, but help.
    I mean listen.. its about empowering your limited attention.. now you can be a narcissistic dick about it.. and sure.. to one degree or another we are all in it for our selves.. but to one degree or another most of us also care about other people.
    I tend to be less interested in celebrities anyway.. just cause.. what am I really getting out of it? And sometimes.. well I mean if you find your self feeling like just a number.. and that persons personal brand had a value that people weren’t numbers.. how am I going to think of that brand now? So I think there’s a cost to too much narcissism.
    Well.. I’m into music production.. and I dare say I don’t think there’s really 5 good podcasts on the subject.. there’s really only 2 I REALLY like.. and one is faded.. and.. in that world they’re celebrities.. and they do actually pay attention to people..
    So to some extent.. this issue of “can we still call it social media” I feel like.. well.. if you’re talking about a certain type of A Lister.. but out here in the long tail.. which I tend to find more interesting anyway.. It certainly is social.. and you really still can have real connections with a number of internet power using celebrities… still..
    But you know.. its probably best not to have too high expectations unless you have a certain amount of status.
    In any event.. most of the people I personally know who are internet celebrities.. if nothing else, still value the idea of the social… which still makes them more social then old media, which maybe enough to still think of it as social media.

  22. I totally Agree on everything. Not all followers on twitter are paying attention to you.

  23. Hey Mitch, great post and obviously by the comments, right on target. After reviewing all the comments, there was one from George Williams that really hit home for me and I totally agree with. Social Media, the Social Web or whatever else you want to call it along with all its tools and communications methodologies (Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin etc) are there for use based on the needs, desires and interests of the users. Everyone who responded to you had unique purposes and interests and some had many different interests. That is the beauty of this beast. It allows users to accomplish what they want to accomplish, freely and openly.
    Personally, I use a system front end for Twitter (not mentioning which one as it doesn’t really matter) that allows me to manage those I follow by specific category. That way I can focus on unique things separately and really work hard on maintaining those important focused relationships. It takes a lot of work, but maintaining relationships is hard work. Are there some who follow me who “don’t pay attention to me”, of course. The opposite is also true. That’s no different than any gathering of people.
    Everyone should have multiple interests in life. Social networking is no different. Each personal “interest” requires constant care and feeding, likely independently of each other. There is no right or wrong, just personal preference and needs that dynamically change based on focus at any given time.

  24. It’s a sad commentary in a way, yet it’s inevitable that those who are the “celebrities” will ultimately have a one-sided conversation or no conversation at all. Perhaps @aplusk is sending out his tweets. Its unrealistic to expect that he’s listening to his fans. Which kind of dispels the illusion of Twitter.
    I agree, Chris, and imho, it’s the Twitter elite who give the impression of listening who gain. Not sure if that’s accomplished by hiring people to tweet on your behalf (such as @guykawasaki). Does that count as communication and listening? Just curious.

  25. Erin, I would concur with you on this. Rather than a conversation, majority of the tweets are broadcasts and this includes direct messages too.
    I had one guy send me a direct message. I replied to him asking him some clarification. Well……reminders notwithstanding, I am still waiting and it is more than three weeks.

  26. Great comments and a great heading to talk about. There is such a craze about Twitter; and mostly for the reasons of building relationships/communicating with people you follow or who follow you such as celebrities. But how can a celebrity who has 500,000 followers ever pay any attention to you? Twitter started becoming popular because celebrities would advertise themselves to be a twitter user on television; since then everyone has registered and use twitter on a daily basis. In a sense yes, it is a great form of advertising your ”brand” as mentioned; either it be you as a person or your company. If you do have company and decide to attract more people onto your page and get the word of mouth out there; Twitter or Facebook could be an excellent way; not to communicate and form relationships with people but it is used more as a networking tool; to reach out to other businesses, colleagues, and partners.

  27. Moreover, I am unclear as to why anyone would be interested enough to follow a Celebrity – they do not care to interact with their followers and/or will Re-tweet self-promoting messages that praise or benefit their interest (Themselves). Second, many have used paid services to enhance their number of followers and do not personally tweet. I use a number of Social Media applications, but the reality is that Twitter is largely the novelty of the day, until something else better arrives in the market.

  28. I agree with you Sarah! Often the only way to really have a real conversation on twitter or any other Social Networks with people that have influence is to have already started a conversation with them somewhere else.
    My favorite places to do that is like we are doing right now, on the persons blog or community. If you leave some intelligent comments on a regular basis, the blog owner will begin to know you and be open to hook up and TALK on Social Networks!
    Thanks for the insights Mitch!

  29. Twitter develops. People vote with their feet (or key strokes) and will abandon social media if they don’t think they’re getting what they want from it. Sorry, but this post was s statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Anyone who uses Twitter would have figured all of your points out very quickly. So back to the blank sheet of paper …

  30. Great post Mich, I just entered the wonderful world of entrepreneurship and have a lot to learn when it comes to marketing. Your blog has been instrumental to my learning and understanding of marketing in the digital medium.
    Minutes after I opened up a twitter account I had 10 people following me. Who were these people and how did they find me. They were all online marketers and within 2 weeks unfollowed me because I did not follow back. I felt horrible about it at the time but after reading your post I realized that they were not in the least interested in getting to know about my business and only wanted to add to their long list of followers. It shows my naivety when it comes to Twitter!
    I sincerely do appreciate the great information, opinions and insight, we sometimes forget how much of a privilege sharing knowledge is .

  31. Individuals or individual brands do have a say in their own small community. Eventually it all adds up to big brands but there will always be mon-n-pop stores and they would need social media to promote their brands within their communities.
    I try to keep the Twitter account simple following these rules

  32. I’ve had exactly the same experience. They @ or DM you with a message that seems related to your interests, you reply back with a question or a comment to begin the conversation, and then nothing except for an avalanche of ‘download this’, or ‘sign up here’ tweets. I stop following a lot of these people. I realise that sounds very anti-social, but hey, if someone did that to me in a bar I would ignore them, so why put up with it on twitter?

  33. Well, I guess each person should know what works and how to get it to work for busines or individual. I get tired looking at my timeline always because of lots of irrelevant tweets from people – Sarah said offline networking is good which I agreed with.
    The best thing to me is this, if an a-list person mentions you on twitter and you amass a follower of thousands, convert them into e-mail subs which is the best and let social media continue to grow as well as e-mail too.
    If they miss your tweet, they ‘probably’ will not miss your e-mail.

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