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.


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.)