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Why does Twitter unfollow people?

It’s happened to me. And to lots of people I know. It might have happened to you. (A hundred anecdotes make evidence, naturally. Here’s a live search link. See for yourself. Maybe. It’s real-time.)

You find out one day that you’re not following someone you know you used to follow. And you’re dead sure you didn’t do it yourself. Either you or they have spotted the omission on a list, or they’ve tried to send a DM and failed. They might let you know about it. They might not. The relationship gets reinstated. Or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So is this cock-up or conspiracy? A bug in the system that lets people slip through the cracks like this?

I don’t think it’s a bug at all, but a feature. A piece of very clever social design. Here’s why.

Real relationships aren’t binary. They’re analogue. You can like someone not at all, a bit, or a lot. That can change from day to day – sometimes from hour to hour. Independently of how much you like them there are other factors involved like distance and frequency of contact. You might adore each other but only communicate once a year.

Social networks can (so far) only provide the palest echo of this rich texture. You’re either someone’s Facebook friend, or you’re not. Twitter’s a bit more subtle in its branding of the relationship, but we’re humans. We’re tempted to attach emotional significance to everything to some degree. Unfollow me? You mustn’t like me any more. I’m sad. I don’t enjoy this experience much. Best keep away from it.

And to those who do the unfollowing and reap more than they bargained for, this brings its own problems. Retaliation. Icy silence. Worse. People will interpret the same fact in countless different ways. We don’t all operate according to the same textbook of emotional responses (mercifully).

So if you’re a savvy social designer, you want to design out the sadness and badness where you can. You want to keep your community happy. You want to keep your community there. So you need loopholes. Get-outs. And you quietly introduce a random unfollow ‘bug’. Just a small one. Perhaps 0.1% of relationships ‘accidentally’ broken in a month. Not enough to reduce confidence in the integrity of the system.

But enough to offer a face-saver to the unfollower. And a hope-giver to the unfollowed.

Genius.

As with social networks, it’s all about the feelings. Black and white? Bad. Fuzzy? Much better.

(Actually, the real reason is because they’ve blocked and unblocked you. The social equivalent of an untraceable poison–now take the hint and piss off out of their life.)

Category: Other

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17 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Love this post.

    Who knows it just might be true…

  2. Tim Whitlock says:

    As interesting as this is as a theory. The developer in me just can’t buy the idea that Twitter are doing this deliberately. I’ve followed the Twitter API for as long as it’s been around – they’ve got their hands full just keeping it stable and adding important features without introducing something as discreetly clever as this

  3. John Halton says:

    Another good way to “fuzzify” the unfollowing process is to make your web-based UI really quite confusing and easy to mess up. For example, you could put the “unfollow” link immediately below the “direct message” link in a drop-down menu. That way, if someone unfollows you, well, maybe they just hit the wrong button, y’know?

  4. broadstuff says:

    Social Network Fuzzy Logic (ie here comes FuzzBook)…

    Some days ago Paul Calrke and I were talking about how we were sure that people who followed us on Twitter were being dropped, and he came up with the interesting observation that it may be deliberate – here is his blog post explaining this, summarised…

  5. Tim Lloyd says:

    I’m sure you are right, Paul. This has happened twice to me in the last week. And I am *certain* the followers concerned wanted to continue reading my Tweets!

  6. Neil says:

    Nice theory! If only Twitter had that much of a plan, I’d be inclined to believe it. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming though.

  7. broadstuff says:

    The Twitter White Lie Fuzzy Algorithm…

    Today Twitter released its new “Who to Follow” List (I saw it on Techmeme). If you sign on to the Twitter Page for your account, on the right hand sidebar you will see it – 2 or so recommends amd you can click through to a whole list. It seems to wor…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Just seen this Paul, and I really really hope this is what they have done.

    Would be super smart – although frankly I’m not sure I have *that* much faith in their ability to make features which aren’t broken just yet.

  9. […] 4) Att twitter gör det med vett och vilja. Åtminstone tror denna mannen att så är fallet. why-does-twitter-unfollow-people […]

  10. […] There are many unfounded rumors out there that Twitter will automatically unfollow people from your account from time to time. No one can explain it nor prove it so for now, I’ll […]

  11. Jennifer says:

    I’m not sure it’s that altruistic. I actually think it’s more likely twitter is gathering statistics on how important these relationships are. Out of 10 random unfollows, how many reconnect? And how many reconnect repeatedly when the unfollow bug keeps hitting them?

    I think as social networking evolves, theyll study the depth of people’s connections… And profit off them.

  12. Mike says:

    Every week I lose 6-15 people I follow, every week! I have no idea why but it’s annoying as anything because I have to go through my list and re-follow the people I’m supposed to be following anyways. If there’s a workaround I’d love to learn about it.

  13. Barbara says:

    I have an ongoing Twitter relationship with someone that Twitter is determined to destroy except that now we laugh about it. He is a friend and a client; I have never purposely unfollowed him yet it has happened three times now. The first time was embarrassing for both of us…for him to have to ask and for me to say it was not me. Now…we can laugh but I’m not loving the practice. Nothing fuzzy there for me.

  14. @Jennifer: if any social network would do this, it would be Facebook — they are much more of a social network than Twitter. Twitter is much more of a microblogging system, allowing announcements that people can follow, or not, and it adds blocking as an afterthought to let people put off stalkers and other annoying people. Facebook is more about the relationships, which is why it allows people to specify the depth of any relationship (by putting people on the restricted list, or in a “close friends” or “family” group, features not everyone knows about or uses but are there, and aren’t there in Twitter).

    I’ve had the experience of seemingly random unfollows or blockings, and sometimes the people involved unblocked or re-followed me as soon as I told them of the problem. It’s a serious irritation because sometimes people do block or unfollow me for real, so I have to go to the trouble of asking why, and leave myself open to being accused of harassing them (particularly as a man with female friends). And it always seems to be the friends I talk to a lot that I have this problem with.

  15. […] And thus it is that he goes on to explain.  And if you want to find out, then I urge you to read the piece in full. […]

  16. LC says:

    wow, i had two celebs that i know i was following and like a lot all the sudden unfollowing-guess now i know why. im surprised they even noticed me that bad with all the followers they have. that hurts my feelings.

  17. kirads09 says:

    This was written 2 years ago. I still have this happen to me. The persons I follow have not blocked me at all ever to my knowledge. In fact they are reciprocating and following me. I have not unfollowed them, but have to re-follow almost daily. I keep doing so. Not sure there is an intent to it. My theory it is all the little apps that are sometimes used in coordination with Twitter that may cause it to destabilize. I am not a tech person, so just a hunch on my part. Some have speculated it is Twitter’s way of checking whether you are a bot or real human. I created a list/lists of everyone I follow. That way you can go to your lists and still see their tweets. Also easier to see where the unfollow might be happening. Only workaround I have come up with for myself.

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