Twitter's Golden Ratio (That No One Likes To Talk About)

golden-ratio-livioIf you’re new to Twitter, life is easy. A notification comes in that someone is following you, and you probably follow them back. After all, you’re going to want some tweets in your stream. After a couple dozen of those, you may start using more discretion, looking over the person’s profile and their most recent tweets. But that gets old quickly as well, and inevitably you turn to using the secret ratio that nearly everyone knows (whether they realize it or not) to determine who is worth following back: “Followers” versus “following”.

If a person has more followers than they are following, they’re probably a good person to at least consider following. If they are following more than they have more followers, the opposite may be true. The greater the discrepancy between the two numbers, the more likely each of those is true — to a certain point, since celebrities like Oprah throw this system out of whack. But for regular, non-Hollywood celebrities, the system works remarkably well as a filter.

One reason why this works so well is that the email notifications you receive now every time you get a new follower put this information front and center. Next to their profile image, these emails list:

1 – number of followers the user has

2 – number of tweets they’ve made

3 – the number of people that user is following

If 1 is greater than 3 (let’s call it a “positive ratio”), it could be worth clicking through to that person’s profile. If 1 is much greater than 3, they most certainly are at least worth looking at. If 3 is greater than 1 (the “negative ratio”) by a large margin, the likelihood that they’re a spammer or marketer is pretty good (and as such, probably someone you don’t want to follow). If they’re ratio is close to even, they may be worth looking at on a case-by-case basis.

screen-shot-2009-08-26-at-12608-amObviously, there are always exceptions. On a user-by-user basis, people will have friends that have negative ratios, but they’ll obviously follow them regardless of the ratio. But on a large scale, when you’re getting multiple requests that you need to filter through, the system works pretty well.

That said, this post will undoubtedly piss a lot of people off.

The fact is that while most people do on some level realize this ratio is true, a lot of people don’t like talking about it. The reason is that it goes up against a fundamental belief of social networking: The idea that if you follow someone, whether you admit it or not, you want them to follow you back. But the reality is that on Twitter, thanks to its asymmetric social graph, that quite often doesn’t happen.

And so we have a Twitter ecosystem that has more negative ratio users than the other way around. And no one likes being told that they’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake, so I’ll understand if this upsets some of you. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

screen-shot-2009-08-26-at-12801-amSince the beginning of Twitter, people have been complaining about hugely positive ratios: “He only follows 10 people,” and the like. The implication being made is that if a lot of people follow you, but you don’t follow a lot of people, you aren’t a “true” Twitter user. That talk has lessened a bit with some of the celebrities now on Twitter who can’t possibly be expected to follow millions of people, but plenty of users still bitch about followers/following inequalities.

But the fact of the matter is that a person can only follow so many people on Twitter before the idea of following starts to become meaningless. Because Twitter doesn’t have built-in relationship filters or the ability to search only those people you are following (both of which FriendFeed and some other services with Twitter-functionality offer), if you are following thousands of people, the likelihood that you’re going to get a meaningful experience from any single follower is pretty small.

But if you’re only following say 20 people, and you’re active on Twitter, you probably see just about everything each of those 20 people say. That’s the reason people have started setting up separate accounts just to follow the people they really want to follow. It’s a filter work-around, of sorts.

The idea of following thousands of people is just ridiculous. From what I’ve seen, as I mention above, the people who do this most often are either spammers or it’s someone trying to promote something. The idea is that the more people you follow, the more are likely to follow you back, the more reach you get for whatever it is you’re promoting (even if that’s yourself).

Now, again, before everyone starts screaming in the comments, I know there are exceptions to this rule. Certainly for newer users trying to get a sense of using Twitter and build up their followers, the ratio won’t apply. But when we start getting into the hundreds and thousands of followers, the ratio starts to work.

And besides, I’m just pointing out a system you probably already use whether you realize it (or will admit to) or not.