It happens several times a day now. Ever since I opened my Twitter account approximately three months ago, the follow alerts have been gradually increasing in frequency to the point that they clutter up my email inbox if I don’t clean them out often enough. “Jessica Kositz (jkositz) is now following your updates on Twitter” my latest alert tells me, and I dutifully click the provided link so that I can peruse Jessica’s profile to determine whether she meets whatever unspoken criteria that would result in my following her back.

My decision on whether to reciprocate a follow takes only a few seconds, but in those brief moments I am able to assess several things: Did the person fill out his profile? Did he upload his picture? What’s his profession and where does he live? How many followers does he have and how many is he following? How often does he post? The answers filter through an inconsistent mental calculus, and based on my arcane and semi-rational reasoning, I decide whether or not to follow the person back. More often than not, I don’t.

This is a decision that millions of social media users make sometimes several times a day; in a world where a Facebook friend request costs nothing more than a single click, the “friend economy” faces an overabundance of friend inflation. Given that reciprocal friending — that is, friending someone simply because he or she friended you — is often the norm, users sometimes find that their friend feeds and follower lists become so cluttered that they’re virtually unusable. In some cases, people discover that by expanding their networks they are actually diminishing their power.

Twitter Reciprocation

Jack Bastide would not agree with this assertion. An online multi-level marketer (MLM), Bastide registered his Twitter account shortly before I did. In that short timespan, he has managed to amass more than 6,700 followers as of this writing. Perhaps even more impressive (or less, depending on the way you look at it), he somehow manages to follow over 7,300 friends. I use the word “follow” in the loosest sense of the word, because even Bastide admits that there’s no adequate way to read all the tweets flowing through his feed every day.

“I have a mutual follow policy,” he told me in a phone interview. “The way I was able to develop a huge list like this pretty quickly was that I followed a lot of people and I give them a chance to follow me back. And if they don’t, I delete them and go follow other people. That’s my basic strategy.”

For Bastide, the object isn’t to read the massive influx of daily tweets, but rather to use Twitter as a networking tool, almost a more collaborative version of email. “So here’s what I do,” he said. “Obviously, if someone sends me a direct message, I’ll answer that. And if someone sends an @reply [a method of publicly responding to someone’s tweet], depending on if it needs an answer or not I will answer that as well. Sometimes I’ll post a question for something and I’ll get 40 or 50 responses, and I can’t respond to all of them personally.”

So rather than focusing on his unmanageable tweet stream, he concentrates on the @replies and those who have direct-messaged him. In some respects, his Twitter use is largely a series of one-on-one conversations, an amalgamation of quasi-public back-and-forth discussions between him and his growing follower list.

Of course, not everyone who has thousands of followers even attempts to reciprocate. Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, is quickly making his way toward 100,000 followers and yet he only follows a little over 100 other users. There is something to be said for being able to collect so many interested readers without the allure of a follow-back. But when I mentioned this to Bastide, he dismissed the “gurus” who rarely give follow backs as unwilling to participate in the conversation.

“I guess they are free to do whatever they want, but I’m free not to follow them,” he said. “I’m not going to follow them if they’re like that. And I’m not just talking about following, but do they respond to replies? If I'm following someone I'll send them a few replies and give them a few chances. If they don’t respond, I delete them. I even deleted Santa Claus because he wouldn’t follow me back.”

Less is More

With some social sites, the law of diminishing returns means that increasing the size of the network does little to increase the power of the user. In speaking to power users on the social news site Digg, for instance, I found that the power users who are able to consistently get submissions to the front page often keep tight, closely monitored friend lists.

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Neal Rodriguez

Neal Rodriguez, who works for Nielsen Business Media, has managed to propel 179 submissions onto Digg’s front page as of this writing. In a recent phone interview, he told me that it isn’t the number of friends you have that helps get content to the front page, but rather the number of active reciprocal friends. Digg, he said, only allows you to send “shout outs” (messages that push your submissions) to a very limited number of friends, making it essential to weed out the non-responsive, inactive Diggers.

“When you push the ‘share’ button there’s a selection that says ‘shout to all’ and it’ll allow you to shout to everybody,” Rodriguez said. “But the end result is it only shouts to a small proportion of that whole list that’s available for you to share with. If you look at your recent activity — and if you shouted to all — if you have about 200 friends it only went out to 50 people, or only 26 people.”

So it’s imperative that the power Digger maximize the chances that those 26 or 50 people are ones that will be sure to Digg content shouted to them. This means that you have to choose your friends carefully, looking for tell-tale signs that they are more than just casual users. When Rodriguez first started on Digg, it was a matter of observing the other power Diggers and pinpointing which of his friends were most consistently Digging his submissions.

“Let’s say that MakiMaki was the top Digger of the month,” he explained. “I would see who was Digging him consistently, who Dugg his last 10 stories. I would Digg all their stuff, and they would Digg back, and that’s how I started to build my friends list.”

One tidbit that I noticed with people I interviewed across multiple platforms is that they usually look for whether a user has uploaded a picture or an icon before friending them. Just about any form of social media has a default icon, but will also allow you to upload your own avatar. Most Twitter users are reluctant to friend someone who uses just the default icon, and Rodriguez usually follows this rule with Digg: If someone doesn’t even take the time to upload some sort of photo, then they certainly won’t put in the effort to stay active.

Interestingly, I’ve found over the last few months that Rodriguez and other Diggers have started forgoing the friend system altogether and instead have done most of their networking offsite. Perhaps part of this comes from paranoia, in that if they message each other internally then Digg’s administrators can then monitor how they push stories and actively quash any attempts to game the site. After all, the allure of the social news site is that content can make it onto the front page organically — that any user has a fair shot of getting an item to go popular. Rodriguez says that he pushes his submissions now mostly over IM and email; sometimes he even talks to other Diggers on the phone.

The Rules of Friending

Like me, Minjae Ormes, an online media consultant, seemed conflicted over what criteria to use in choosing who to follow on a social media platform. She said that it varies depending on the site — she may be more strict with Twitter than on Facebook, for instance. With Twitter, she said the stream of tweets sometimes gets so cacophonous that she has to monitor her follow list to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand, sometimes removing someone who tweets too much and then re-following him when his posts die down.

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Minjae Ormes

“Once I hit…around 400 people I followed, it was enough to say I know who I talk to on a regular basis, and I can afford to simply not follow back just because they follow me,” she said. “Right now, my follower and follow list are within 30 people of each other, but it’s not the same 800 people that I follow. It just kind of happened that I seek out people who are in new media, who are in fashion…or in film…and I’ll follow them.”

To tame the beast, so to speak, Ormes is constantly removing people from her follow list, so much so that it is almost a living document, a constantly mutating list that changes as she monitors the value of each friend and whether she’s benefiting at all from seeing what they have to say.

As for Jessica Kositz, my most recent follower (though actually I’ve received several new follows since beginning this article), I chose in that instance not to follow back. She’s not an anomaly for me; the distance between the number of people I follow and the number of people who follow me is constantly growing. Someone with Jack Bastide’s friending philosophy might consider me arrogant or a snob.

For me, it’s just simple mathematics: Every person I add is just another set of tweets that I’ll have to scroll through to get to the ones I really want to read.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.