There is, of course, no right way to use Twitter, though some are better than others. The social network has, historically, had trouble with its on-boarding process, and one of the biggest hurdles for new users is simply figuring how many people is the right number to follow. Follow too few people and Twitter is never-refreshing graveyard. Follow too many and subject yourself to a ceaseless torrent of 140-character thoughts.
And yet, for all the care and attention to detail that goes into building the perfect feed, there are some who eschew convention and common sense to do the unthinkable. They are the super-followers: real people who've surrendered to the feed — who've chosen to follow almost indiscriminately. Even on the slowest days their feeds rage onward, almost always too fast to read in real time.
So who are these people? And why do they do it?
While some, like CNBC contributor Carol Roth, who penned a recent "Why I Follow 15,000 People on Twitter" column, seem to be in it for pure, unadulterated love of engagement ("I am a naturally curious person and I like to learn and meet new people," she wrote), power-followers are, by and large, using it as a ploy to build small Twitter empires. And despite a growing social media savvy, it seems to still work.
Earlier this year, Taye Diggs suddenly followed tens of thousands of people with the help of a social media expert. Diggs told the Today show the mass follow was an effort to switch from purely broadcasting, though it seems more likely to be a clever PR tactic that's brought Diggs back into the spotlight.
For Mike Allen, Politico's chief White House correspondent, it's earned him the title of "the journalist most followed on Twitter by members of Congress." He joined Twitter in earnest in 2009 after years of skepticism (his column, "Mike Allen Now a Twitter Hitter" is a near-perfect 2009 time capsule). Allen now follows 233,000 people, including Diggs.
Allen says he's personally clicked the follow button on everyone himself and did not use any bot service. But the decision to mass follow seems to have rendered his feed almost unusable. He told BuzzFeed he only checks his timeline "episodically" but keeps a list of around 100 of journalists he checks on from time to time.
Similarly, Duane Patterson, a conservative talk radio show producer who follows 694,000 people, has a small list of around 100 people he reads to keep up with newsy conversations. Patterson said using his timeline would be like "trying to pick out one drop of water in a sewer line."
Patterson's main use of Twitter is to promote his show, so he tries to follow back everyone who has followed him. Like many before him, Patterson uses the #followback as a crucial method to gain followers — so much so that he stressed his frustration to BuzzFeed at Twitter's limit of allowing users to follow only 1,000 accounts per day. Over his three and a half years on Twitter, he's built up a following of 748,000 users through this method and told BuzzFeed that once people realize you will follow back, they'll come in droves. "At some point you achieve your critical mass, someone finds out that you follow back and then they come. It's like Field of Dreams — if you build it, they will come," he said.
Some, however, grow to regret the #followback tactic, and as Guy Kawasaki, a former Apple evangelist and early Twitter adaptor, has learned, reclaiming your feed comes at a cost. Kawasaki followed as many people as he could in Twitter's early days at the suggestion of fellow evangelist Robert Scoble. Kawasaki now has 1.41 million followers and recently was following over 300,000 people. Although he checks his mentions every day, he never reads his timeline and describes his use of social media as "antisocial social media. "I am always pushing out content," he said. "I am not trying to find out who has a baby."
But because of his self-described "OCD-ness," Kawaskai became overwhelmed and had to resort to paying an automated service to reduce his follower count to 100,000. He said he paid "about a penny" for each unfollow (roughly $2,000) and might go all the way down to zero. He added that there was some concern over losing followers who get offended over his unfollow — another messy Twitter social convention.
"If someone unfollows you, are you supposed to lie awake at night? I don't think so," he said.