The Myth Of Reciprocity And The Social Life Of Brands

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I follow you. You follow me. Right?

No. Not really. If you dig deep into the dynamics of relationships, conversations and engagement on Twitter, you’ll quickly discover two camps:

  1. Those who will follow back anybody and everybody.
  2. Those who only follow back those where there is mutual benefit.

It is also clear that there are instances when it’s hard to define if someone who is following you is worthy of a follow-back at first glance. Personally, I see this as an opportunity to truly extend an olive branch, provide value to the individual and figure out where there is a mutually beneficial meeting of the minds. Like any other relationship, some of them gel right from the get-go (hence the saying, "love at first sight"), while others take some time.

What’s a brand to do?

For the majority of brands, the most logical and strategic play is to follow back each and every individual who has taken the time to follow, friend, like, or plus you. The mindset in this instance is to think of your brand as a media entity. If there are individuals who want to connect to you, it makes perfect sense to follow them back and leverage this group to build your audience. There is no doubt that the more people that a brand is following, the more opportunities they are creating to get their message to spread to more and more people (and this includes these individuals and their social graphs).

People are not brands.

The challenge for individuals (both celebrities and everyday people like you and I) is in figuring out how to make these bigger dynamics work most effectively. Chris Brogan (co-author of Trust Agents with Julien Smith and co-host of our Media Hacks podcast) pulled an interesting move the other day: He unfollowed everyone who was following him on Twitter (you can read all about the reasons and then some of the initial reactions here: The Great Twitter Unfollow Experiment of 2011). With nearly 200 comments (and growing) on his Blog post, it’s an interesting mix of both opinions and emotions. It also shines a light on a more fascinating aspect of relationships when things go digital: what, in fact, does reciprocity mean? What is the value of following someone back?

It’s simple…

Reciprocity in the social life of online media should mean that if someone connects with you, you should reciprocate and connect back – sight unseen. The problem is that reciprocity is actually not that simple. True reciprocity (as far as I can tell) is the act of both people deriving a level of value towards the mutual relationship. If people are offended by this or think otherwise, they’re not interested in reciprocity… they’re interested in their own, personal gain.

Reciprocity is momentary.

In the digital world, reciprocity can be momentary. If we live next door to one another and you loan me a cup of sugar, each and everyday that I walk to my car or take out my garbage, I will both remember your kind and generous act and think of ways to help you back. If you’re kind enough to follow me on Twitter or Facebook but you then decide that it’s not for you or you simply aren’t committed to any type of engagement, it’s not like you’re notifying me (and I’m not spending much time thinking about you, either). So, the only way for me to find  out that you’re not reciprocating beyond the initial connection is either when your account gets hacked (and I’m suddenly being spammed by you) or during some kind of Social Media clean-up where I realize we’ve had zero interactions.

Filter, filter and more filters.

Have you read my Blog post called, The Dirty Little Secret Of The Twitter Elite? Those who are using Twitter for their own personal gain (as most of us are) are using filters and technology like Hootsuite, TweetDeck, or Twitter Lists to filter out the noise of those who they are following, so that they can focus on those they actually derive value from. Think about the current ruckus over Google +: the number one reason people like Google + is because they can both choose and create the circles they like ("circles" is the same thing as "filters"). They can mute the people they don’t know and amplify those that they truly want to be connected to. In essence, none of this is about reciprocity. The majority of people with a lot of followers and/or friends are interacting with a small handful of individuals but continue to drive for more followers and friends so that they can spread their own message far and wide.

Does that sound like reciprocity to you?


  1. Spot on as usual Mitch! I used to follow most people back. Earlier this year I unfollowed about 9,000 people bringing my total to around 300 people that I’m following. While I lost about 1,000+ followers doing this I gained so much more. I began to enjoy twitter again and find myself starting conversations even more.
    Following tens of thousands only to filter them out with lists just seemed wrong to me. VERY few people understand reciprocity like you do. When used correctly it’s a powerful thing.

  2. Interesting. They say that the social norms in the real world should apply to our digital lives as well. But let’s be realistic. In real life (for most non-celebrities at least) you don’t get pummeled with friend requests on an hourly/daily basis. And friending/following someone increases the noise in your stream.
    Reciprocity shouldn’t be out of obligation. If you choose to follow someone back, it should be because you put some thought and consideration into it. To me that’s valuable. Whether my personal account or a company one, I’d want someone to follow me because I am providing them with real value or they find my messages or discussions engaging.

  3. Mitch, you nail so many things. You have nailed this. It’s especially interesting since I had just read Brogan’s post. Here’s the way I see it. I don’t expect people to “follow” (as in the actual meaning of the term) my stream. Partly because, up until this week, my stream was very much directed at social interaction and provided very little value to people outside of Milwaukee and partly because I’m realistic enough to know that people can only consume so much. They have limits to the amount they can take in. I have these limits. I use the filters, and I’m not even one of the “elite.”
    Having said that, I’ve just started a personal experiment to create a new stream that DOES indeed provide value. How will my interactions be different? Who would I choose to follow? How will my followers differ? Broad or selective follow backs? I’ve only been at it for a couple days, but after about a month I think I’ll write my own post about it.
    Would reciprocity be great? Absolutely. That would mean that we’ve each found value in the other person’s interactions. Do I expect reciprocity? That would be rather narcissistic of me.

  4. Great insights Mitch. I’ve struggled with this, at first following everyone who followed me. Over time I’ve tried to only follow those who seem worthwhile, and found that so many people who appear to be worth following (based on their description) actually aren’t.
    Like John Morgan mentioned, I find myself enjoying Twitter more when I go through and unfollow large numbers of people who simply don’t connect with my interests.
    I would rather have 100 dedicated followers who care about our conversation than 100,000 anonymous spammers.

  5. Are we at a point in human nature where reciprocity and the social norms are changing?
    I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about this for quite some time, this post is inspiring me to do that this weekend.
    Human nature doesn’t change or so they say but more and more I see the influence of digital communication changing things, perhaps even the evolution of humanity.
    When Twitter was new there were no digital social norm established, following back was the only thing we could do, so mirroring out non-digital norms, we naturally followed. However the reason why I think reciprocity may be changing is because it’s too easy to follow someone back thus the internal pull to respond to our nature to reciprocate is also lower. Now it’s just lending the sugar without the cup.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  6. If half of the 200 ( from a list of 130,0000) comments were vitriolic, that would be fine with me if I were Chris. These individuals would be a close second on my list for expulsion after the spammers. They represent the “I, Me, Miners” we all slide away from at a party, given half a polite chance.

  7. Thanks for the perspective. I completely agree with your thoughts on reciprocity, but one of the headers warrants debate: “People aren’t Brands”. This is totally off topic, but I keep seeing this concept appearing more and more. Using Chris as an example, I think you are 50% right and %50 wrong. Chris the guy, isn’t a brand, but the phrase Chris Brogan really serve as two things now: A guy and a brand.
    My background is jewelry and people often build their business around their name. If someone said something like “David Yurman sucks”, it isn’t ideal, but it is usually a reflection on the company or the design, not the person (David’s a great guy by the way 🙂 ). It’s never fun to hear this kind of negative feedback, but once you get over a certain point, it happens. Especially when you make a big sweeping change (e.g. unfollowing 130,000 people).
    If a company like Ford decided to stop following everyone, we would have no problem dissecting the move. Even if they wrote an informative post with sound talking points as to why, Ford loyalists would feel scorned.
    When you have a 130,000+ followers, I think it is safe to say that these are not all close and personal friends, that there is a brand effect in play here.
    I know I’m off the topic of reciprocity, but it seems like there is a very different treatment of a broader brand name with 130,000 followers and a person with the exact same volume.
    So I guess the question is this. If people themselves aren’t brands, at what point does their name become a brand.
    For the record, not trying to pick on Chris at all, he should use the tools as he sees fit and I can only imagine how unmanageable 130K followers must be. He just happens to be a very poignant example of someone who has likely transitioned into brand status, at least in name…

  8. Mitch,
    Well said. My idea of reciprocity is similar to yours, however I don’t see how that can consistently happen….especially in social media. I believe I would be hard pressed to provide ‘equal’ value to Chris Brogan and many others who I follow so if they don’t follow back – or unfollow me – I can’t blame them. The same is true for all of us who are not the ‘power players’.
    Following to get a number count or out of a misguided sense of obligation doesn’t make sense to me.
    I do wish there was an easier way to selectively unfollow those who I have followed in the hopes of reciprocity only to find they’ve given up or missed the mark for me. A cleansing seems to be a very good thing.

  9. I’ve had this debate a few times and still can see no reason to simply follow everyone who follows me.
    My point of view is that simply following someone because they follow you is actually more of an insult than not following back. It just shows the person is only interested in followers and not providing good value.
    I know that if someone is following thousands of people my tweets aren’t going to be noticed in their timeline and I’m more than likely to be shoved into a filter and never seen.
    My approach is to check out everyone who follows me and if they are interesting I will follow them back but I’m not going to fill up my timeline with 000s of people just because a few social media experts say that’s the thing to do.
    I don’t use my filters any more. Everyone I’m interesting in are in my main timeline and if they’re not interesting or adding value they’re unfollowed during my regular dulls.
    I see twitter as a great way to stay in touch with my connections and to develop new ones but it’s quality I’m after, not quantity.

  10. Touché, Mitch.
    I use lists unashamedly because I think that you need to be able to manage with whom you speak about what (and when)… just like in life. When you have travelled a lot and gathered a rather large address book (as I have), I do not have the ability to remember who and where everyone is without digital help! Lists are a way to avoid nuisance broadcasting and filtering out noise in your stream. They make consummate sense (although they do take time to create and manage).
    Meanwhile, I have started another twitter account where all my content is 100% French (I want to have an account by language). It is another way to see what it is like to “start all over again,” (albeit keeping my regular account). I have taken a path whereby I have connect only with those I want to follow and am seeing how my “content” attracts new followers (with limited reciprocity). An interesting experiment in itself.
    For me, reciprocity happens when there is give and take beyond a simple refollow. The vast majority of auto-followers who spend their time trying to “catch” new followers are spending their time on the wrong objectives. Vapid reciprocal following is not worthy of being called reciprocity.

  11. Mitch
    Thanks for sharing this post. Really helpful. I am focused on the legal sector in the UK and have been saying for some time that Big Law firms need to think about the value of those people that follow them. The majority do not bother to follow back and it is the rare exception to see them interact with any of their followers. Some firms have sent Zero Tweets but still have a few people who have decided to follow them. What a nonsense. For me it is not about the quantity but the quality of the engagement (trite but true). I just wish more people would look at Twitter as something to build valued relationships, and not just another pipeline for their dry as sawdust material.

  12. Thank you for this valuable insight. It all boils down to personal goals. If you’re out to be publicly seen as an influential twitter user and are not interested in putting any effort to interact with others you’re loosing something quite valuable about sharing. You’re really playing games. This sure won’t help build your reflection by interacting with your community (which takes time to build in real life and should also be the case on twitter). I guess, the effort you put in social media will be what you will gain out of it. Better have a small tribe which makes you grow than a hoard of empty shells with no interaction.It’s a very easy trap to fall into and it’s very much linked to human nature & pride. I particularly like Hugh MacLeod’s move to cut his twitter account to focus on what sharing thoughts is all about. Sure his choice is very much in line with what you are saying. Anyway, your post sure get’s me thinking, and will change the way I will use twitter in the future. Thanks.

  13. Interesting point of view about reciprocity and the value that we derive from our Twitter followers (or vice versa). In the past, I used to just follow anybody who followed me, and then I realised that there were quite a lot of spammers and people who weren’t sincere in making a real connection. That led to an ongoing clean up of my list.
    For now, I will prune every now and then, taking care to unfollow those who either do not offer any value in their tweets, are celebrities/twitteratis with excessively self indulgent tweets, or who are flooding my account with a non-stop stream of rubbish.

  14. “True reciprocity (as far as I can tell) is the act of both people deriving a level of value towards the mutual relationship.”
    I actually recently did the same thing as Chris but on a much smaller scale as I don’t have nearly the amount of fans/followers as he does. The reason for me was to eliminate those that weren’t giving me value (not spam as Chris mentioned). That makes it easier for me to connect when there is context and/or value with others without making separate lists or missing tweets.

  15. Thanks for confirming my approach to followers! I don’t ever recommend following everyone and don’t follow everyone either. It may seem a bit strange but a protect who follows me. Reciprocal followers should be based on mutual interest and influence. The quality of followers and therefore you influence is linked.
    This is also why I debate whether klout or peer index are relevant.
    Great to see that someone values the quality – not only quantity of relationships.

  16. Most of the twitter users do not really care who are following them back after gaining some big numbers or followers.
    Good example: Chris Brogan with his several accounts follows and followed back thousands of people. Then, something strange happens and many got Unfollowed.
    So, for some twitter is place to communicate, for some just place to promote themselves and business.
    If someone smart and achieved both that person worth to follow @infotechusa
    So some can follow you back and hope to be followed. Than drop most of them to gain account with impressive number. Or just because of loosing interest in too many followers.
    I am just guessing of course.
    Thank you for your post, it gives me fresh ideas to use twitter more efficient.

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