The unearned follow

I wanted to keep this one to a separate post from the Quora issues, because it’s an issue worth discussing on its own.

I’ve been getting too many follows on too many services without earning them.

On PicPlz I have 2,034 followers.
On Quora I have 17,713 followers.
On Instagram I have 9,249 followers.

Did I earn these by having the best participation? The best photos? The best answers? No. Although I put in some good time, with 409 questions answered on Quora and hundreds of photos posted to the other systems, I can’t say I earned every follow.

I’m not the only one benefitting from unearned follows.

First, how do you get an unearned follow?

Well, let’s say you are following me on Twitter. Then we both join a service like PicPlz.

Did you know that PicPlz will automatically follow me for you? Even if you hate my photographs?

Did I really earn your follow on these new services like I did on the older services like Twitter or Facebook? Yeah, you could say that I didn’t earn them there, either, since I had hundreds of thousands of readers on my blog before I started tweeting, but on Twitter you needed to manually “follow” me and other people on the system. On the newer systems they automatically follow people based on their Twitter popularity.

I don’t think so but I don’t know what to do about it.

This presents a distorted picture of who is putting the most effort into the system. For instance, of the top five most followed on Quora, other than me, here’s how many questions they’ve answered:

Evan Williams has 17,373 followers and has answered five questions.
Kevin Rose has 16,486 followers and has answered 11 questions.
Tim O’Reilly has 13,122 followers and hasn’t answered a single question yet!
Jason Calacanis has 11,528 followers and has answered 29 questions.
Michael Arrington has 11,499 followers and has answered 15 questions.

As comparison, I went through the Quora reviewers (these are people who’ve answered a question well enough to have gotten “reviewer” status, which gives them powers that I don’t have, like the ability to mark questions as not helpful, and the power to not approve your question, which means no one will see it).

Most of these people have “earned” fewer than 100 followers.

Do you see the problems this causes?

Jealousy, for one (because no one can really get as many followers as those who already have them). Non-transparency for two (because the follower counts don’t mean anything on the newer services).

Why do companies do this?

Because it gets popular users onto the system, which drags their social networks onto a new social network.

What does that cause? Virality.

How many of us are talking about Instagram and PicPlz, but not Path? Why not?

Path resists this system and forces people to manually add their friends in their new system.

This retards virality but causes something else to go way up: loyalty and lack of churn. It also ensures that the social graph that is built on Path is one that’s earned on the new system, not dragged over from an older system where it might not make sense.

Path has other problems that keep me from using it (it’s not cross platform, for instance, and it is too limiting on number of friends, at 50) but this experience has me wondering if forcing all users to “earn” their follows might not be a better way?

What do you think?

UPDATE: I added a question on Quora to get feedback about this post.


59 thoughts on “The unearned follow

  1. I can’t comment on which way is better, but this is a product of which numbers these services make public and which are private. If # of followers are the only (most important) stats you immediately find about a user, the public will take that to mean it’s the only (most important) stat that matters. This is going to require the operators of these services to question what goals they are trying to achieve and decide which statistics will drive success toward those goals.


  2. Well written, Robert. I think a lot of folks are realizing that the quality of followers is more important than the quantity, but it’s hard not to get sucked in by the allure of the numbers. When non-geeky friends and co-workers find out I’m on Twitter, the first question they usually have is “How many followers do you have?” As for PicPlz- Here I thought you had started following me because of my sparkling personality… *sigh*


  3. Robert, This is roughly the fifth thing I’ve read from you today which is all about you, your numbers, your followers, your …. bleah. This is becoming an ego thing for you it seems. Shut up for a frickin’ day.


      1. I’m with my Richard. But seriously I’ve found that sometimes services use the “suggest you follow” approach and you end up with lots of followers without knowing why exactly. In the end you want “real” followers who are actively interested in what you have to say.


  4. This is correct! Much of this is related also to the original Twitter suggested user list. You will find that sites that sync with Twitter connections will result in those hand-picked folks being at the top. Best example? Evan Williams has 24,000 followers on FriendFeed with 13 comments and one like. That’s 10,000 more subscribers than I have! 🙂


    1. No Louis, Ev has 24,000 followers because people using Friendfeed (before it was a cesspool), want to hear him. If he was active here (a total waste), he’d have an enormous following.

      Anyway, that old SUL sucks meme got too much play as it was. Now Quora gets to blame it too? Yikes.



  5. Frankly – this is just maturation of media- what these companies realize they are. It’s no different than “Dancing With The Stars” – there are probably a lot of other people who could learn to dance as well as David Hasselhoff, but it won’t get you the same ratings, cause that’s how we’re rigged as humans. That’s why these services say “if you’re connected, we want to get more traffic by importing these connections”. Companies like Gigya etc. help them do that instantly.

    So Robert you’re more interesting to follow than most people for the early adopter users of these services. For us, you’re the Hoff.

    Now let’s see what happens when Ashton Kutcher joins Quora…


      1. Ya but thats like saying Justin Beiber’s on Quora, it requires thinking skills, which is over both their fan bases heads…LOL. If you start posting pics though of them on Quora – the site will melt.


      2. Check. Some people blame the celeb for their, as you aptly put it, chewing gum fan base. Some days even emoticons don’t get the ‘not a serious comment’ aspect through to my brain. Apologies. 🙂


  6. I’m also kind of ticked about all the new “followers” I have on Quora. I joined it because of access to some the smartest people in tech. In their quest to grow and become mainstream it will be impossible to keep the quality of questions and responses high. Google has a similar problem in Google Reader. Everyone I follow on Buzz gets automatically added to friends I follow on Reader. I don’t mind getting their Buzz post but not all the crap they share on Reader. I want a way to segment who I follow on each service.


  7. Guess I’m a non typical follower since i started to “follow” you after watching a photo walk podcast (before the fastcompany days). As for the follower thing i guess that most people only got a handfull of followers on twitter and such but then I guess they are like me and don’t tweet/write that much either.



  8. In the real sense of social networking , the number of followers is irrelevant .

    It is a bit like ‘train spotting’ , just an indication of having seen the particular train.

    More important is whether people listen to you , comment on your ideas and enter into an exchange of ideas.


  9. path is great because it’s close and limited !!!! You may not be the ideal user but many people want a close and secure place to share their pictures.
    By the way it’s not because nobody talks about it that they are doing something wrong.
    Before I leave, your jealousy comment is completely left field my friend. They are reviewers because they earn that title. Quora is not a race to answer the most questions…. it’s all about quality.


    1. Ricardo: sorry, but lots of reviewers say that some of the reviewers are jealous that I have followers and they don’t. That’s what I was trying to say. I think my post makes it clearer now.


      1. You are way off on this.

        First of all, reviewers don’t get the role because of lots of good answers or any good answers, really.

        There are a lot of ‘jobs’ on Quora that any user can do, most reviewers are selected because they’ve done a good job adding topics to questions, editing questions, adding question details, suggesting edits to answers or helping new users by pointing them in the right direction.

        When Quora was smaller, these actions were pretty obvious in the logs, and I think you can still see now if you check a lot of question logs, that there are a lot of people who have no official affiliation with Quora who are trying to actively improve the quality of the crowd-sourced portions of Quora.

        Reviewers, or any user, who blindly desires lots of users are obviously just expressing some sort of internet-ego desire which is pretty human, but I still don’t think that the reason you got collapsed had anything to do with jealousy.

        You should check out a post by Yishan Wong:

        At one point he felt he had too many unwarranted followers and asked them to unfollow him, he went so far as to begin blocking people who he had not interacted with so that they would go seek out other users to follow.

        Of course, Yishan is a bad example, but regardless, I have found that the more people that follow me has little to do with the quality of my Quora experience, it is actually the opposite. Finding good people to follow has improved my experience, who follows me is insignificant, and I think any jealous person who wants more followers will realize that Quora is not Twitter and having more followers doesn’t really do much for you.

        Once again, I’d like to implore you to use your influence on Quora to encourage your followers to become exceptional contributors. Point them towards other users who are specialists and who have provided great answers, help them understand what they can discover on Quora and how they can help to make those discoveries even better for the community as a whole.


  10. I think the issue is that following follows how valuable someone is to a specific service. Evan Williams has 17k followers not because he’s put a ton of time and effort into Quora, but because people want to hear what he has to say, even (especially?) if it’s infrequent.

    The autofollow from the other service is probably closer to the reality of unearned, but, I think that it’s not a huge logical leap that if I want to hear what you say on twitter, I might want to see what pictures you’re taking. It’s good for a nascent service to seed what interactions the user will be having, so while it might not be a fantastic user experience for the service to guess, it’s a lot better than starting at a blank screen.


  11. Other than someone with an ego as fragile as yours, who the hell gets jealous over how many followers someone has? Why is that even important? Unless you’re 16, a girl, and in high school. Seriously, the service is not about you.


    1. Dave: lots of people do. And lots of people needlessly take them seriously. You wouldn’t believe how many times I was introduced as “tech blogger who has xxxx of followers on Twitter” at the World Economic Forum.


      1. Lady Gaga has almost 8 million followers, what’s your point? How the hell do the number of followers mean anything? Just because you may have a lot of followers doesn’t mean you know what you are talking about on any subject.

        I’d much rather listen to the opinions of, say, William Nordhaus or Martin Weitzman, who as far as I can tell aren’t even on Twitter (and if they are have virtually no followers), Lady Gaga.

        You say “needlessly take them seriously”, but yet week doesn’t go by where you yourself make reference to the number of followers you have.


  12. I follow people whose point of view I find interesting. It has nothing to do with the volume of content they write. I also don’t reward them with my follow, I do it for myself and don’t in any way hope to incentivize them with it.

    I think this concept of vanity incentives is really hurting a lot of social services and a lot of what has been written the past couple days is a reaction to that. I, for one, am a little burnt out by the friend collectors and am starting to gravitate towards more intimate social services, like Aardvark.

    The growing pains of Quora really underscore what an amazing entity Wikipedia is. Look at the quantity and quality of content on Wikipedia, all without almost any kind of vanity award. You still get great experts, just not the kind that need repeated pats on the back.


  13. Robert,

    For what it’s worth, we put a lot of thought into the pros and cons of this approach with picplz.

    If you recall from our meeting, we specifically built picplz to be a *broadcast* medium.

    In a broadcast-style site, the most difficult problem to overcome in the early days is the “blank page” issue. Specifically, how do you overcome the fact that during the early days of a site, a large percentage of your users see zero content. For example, imagine you checked out Flipboard for the first time, and it was a completely empty page. Sites that implement a great on-boarding process that requires small amounts of work ultimately are more enjoyable.

    Creating a system to allow people to immediately discover and consume broadcasted content creates a better user experience for new users, as well as those that are doing the broadcasting. Perhaps a user follows you on picplz, and they don’t care for your pictures, they can very easily unfollow you, in much the same way the do on twitter. You are the “broadcaster” and we are making it easy for people that enjoy consuming your broadcasts on other services to follow your broadcasts on picplz with minimal effort.

    I would compare it to the on-boarding issues with RSS readers. Being a featured blog in Google Reader creates an inflation in subscribers vs. not being featured, however I personally believe that the existence of “featured” Google Reader blogs is beneficial both for new Google Reader users looking for things to subscribe to, as well as to the blogs that are being featured.

    I don’t the “broadcast” metaphor necessarily applies to all consumer internet sites. As far as I can tell, Path has been built to be something very different than broadcast. Additionally Quora does not appear to be built as a broadcast medium (as you yourself have recently noted). I don’t claim to understand the intentions of the creators of any company other than my own, but I do think the intentions around these issues affect what the service becomes when it grows up.

    I understand your need to make # of followers “mean” something, but at the end of the day it is just another metric of influence, alongside web-traffic, “influence”, “engagement” etc.


  14. There’s a crowd factor going on, too. A tendency for people to notice a sizable crowd, and join in out of interest that was (at least initially) only based on the size of the crowd. When a crowd becomes dramatically large, it has a sort of “gravity” effect develop. I’m not sure those are totally “unearned” but it’s not quite the same as those who knew before they joined.


  15. Robert, I understand where you’re coming from.

    But you don’t go from being a nobody to Mr. Famous without hard work. When I signed up for PicPlz, I started following you automatically. But was that really an unearned follow? Or was that just a reflection of your hard work in the digital space, and you now reaping the profits of your velocity?

    On a superficial level, it’s an unearned follow. But if you look at it from the 10,000 foot view, it’s a hard earned follow. You’ve worked your butt off to get here.

    Still, I’m glad that Twitter and WordPress don’t work like Quora and PicPlz. It means that nobodys have a chance to become Mr. Famous, it they work hard too.

    So I understand why you wrote this. 🙂


  16. Isn’t this essence of influence? The people you mention in your article have already earned it (influence, I mean) and the chances are that their answers are going to carry more weight, even if those answers are few and far between.


  17. This is an interesting subject Robert. On one hand I see your point but on the other hand you dont choose why people follow you so its not your fault. Some people may follow you for the mob/lemmings effect. I think most people use popularity to see you stick out and say “hey this guy must have something people like.” I follow you because your usually on the cutting edge of ideas, you have a love for tech gadgets AND you usually USE what you promote. Not many people have as much stuff on Instagram as you. I dont follow some of the other people mentioned because they dont really use the services.

    In the end you earned your base because your a great curator of tech information and for one reason or another people follow that interest. I think people who are jealous of you dont have that following because the havent or dont work that hard as you have to curate. _Also you’ve been working building your following for what over 10 years +?_ So by that measure its earned.

    If you bring a group you curated (like say a giant school group you built) to an art museum, do you have less of a right to look at the paintings over single entry visitors.

    Also I would suggest that when the Scoble hoardes (LOL) come they bring with them extraordinary groups of people to contribute ideas that collectively add to the knowledge base. Not everyone of your followers is “dittoing” everything you say on Quora. Many of your followers may have differing views and add to the various arguments. But in the end they may not have known about these services as fast without you going there first. Without the masses embracing these startups they might likely be ghost towns and fold.

    A perfect example of this is Path. Since the “hoardes” cant get it – it is a ghost town. My Path App now plays crickets chirping. I’d hate to be their investor.



  18. Hey Robert, I’m the founder of Dinevore (, a social restaurant recommendations site, and we made a conscious decision *not* to have auto-following. In fact, we display the following message on our “Find Your Friends” page (, “We take the people you follow into account when displaying content around the site, so be selective!” We want our users to be able to get the best recommendations possible, and just because you follow someone on Twitter doesn’t mean you trust their taste in restaurants (or fashion, or photography).


  19. I think you’re onto it exactly in that extremely high (i.e. outlier high) social media follower counts are, except in some rare instances, not about what you do on the social media sites. Accounts with a genuinely large number of followers got that way because of the account holders reach, reputation, and celebrity in traditional media and otherwise. Do people really follow Snoop Dog, et all because of his contributions to Twitter or because of his rep?


  20. Robert, you EARNED the follow I gave you…. you’re one of only 8 so far for me. I thought long and hard about it before I did it… to make sure I’d be able to defend it against just this kind of thing.


  21. Well analyzed & written! precisely the problem we will face with our startup – Spoorr. But we’ll find a way 🙂 thanks for the insights!


  22. I don’t think it’s about “earning” or not earning it. It’s about popularity, and that comes first. If you’re a known and popular person, whether it’s you Scoble or Ashton or anyone,- that popularity will follow you anywhere you go. When Oprah started on Twitter, we all know what happened, and that wasn’t because of the insightful tweets she put out.

    Reality is that “earning” followers when you’re not starting at a high enough level is tough. Social networks reward popularity first, efforts second, and relevancy third. There are very few cases where someone really earned their way to popularity if they started from zero. Take 2 examples I know. Someone very credible I know had 10,000 followers a year ago, today has 16,000. Another equally credible person had 100,000 followers 6 months ago, now has 160,000. Both improved, but look at the absolute difference. The problem is that we’re measuring by number of followers, and that’s a popularity measure, period. Some very influential and smart people have less than 5,000 followers on Twitter. Is that so bad?

    Robert- you’re popular. If any new service started and you went there, some % of people will follow you. If Bill Clinton joined a fictitious social network, people will follow, no matter what his activity level becomes. That’s reality. Social networking is a popularity contest. Few earn it the hard way.


  23. I think the key issue raised in this post is not one of popularity, but that Quora chose to automate the friend finding/following process without their users knowledge or consent. That was a sneaky thing to do that speaks poorly of their decision making in my opinion. Quite honestly, I was disappointed that influential bloggers didn’t immediately make mention of this practice and call them out for it. If users want to quickly fill up their “friends” list on a given service, so be it. But that should be their choice to make.


  24. I think the key issue raised in this post is not one of popularity, but that Quora chose to automate the friend finding/following process without their users knowledge or consent. That was a sneaky thing to do that speaks poorly of their decision making in my opinion. Quite honestly, I was disappointed that influential bloggers didn’t immediately make mention of this practice and call them out for it. If users want to quickly fill up their “friends” list on a given service, so be it. But that should be their choice to make.


  25. I think the key issue raised in this post is not one of popularity, but that Quora chose to automate the friend finding/following process without their users knowledge or consent. That was a sneaky thing to do that speaks poorly of their decision making in my opinion. Quite honestly, I was disappointed that influential bloggers didn’t immediately make mention of this practice and call them out for it. If users want to quickly fill up their “friends” list on a given service, so be it. But that should be their choice to make.


  26. I think the key issue raised in this post is not one of popularity, but that Quora chose to automate the friend finding/following process without their users knowledge or consent. That was a sneaky thing to do that speaks poorly of their decision making in my opinion. Quite honestly, I was disappointed that influential bloggers didn’t immediately make mention of this practice and call them out for it. If users want to quickly fill up their “friends” list on a given service, so be it. But that should be their choice to make.


  27. If you ask me it’s indicative of the problem with social media: Every time a new site comes along I have to re-define my friends.

    It seems like the one thing that stays constant IS my list of friends (or people I want to follow) People don’t look at each network and the value separately. They say “who are my friends? Ok I need to follow them here, here, and here”


  28. You could try to act like an publisher: find great contributors or contributions, indicate them to your followers, and suggest more before the Scoble-bump gets too hard to manage for them. You could also try to encourage actions that are not as visible and viral as upvotes: explain what edits are about, and who does it best.

    Regarding silent stars (O’Reilly, Arrington, but also Larry Summers for me) those are classic public people: they separate their private and public lives. I know that no matter what they post, I’ll be interested. Nobody is resentful or jealous of them (nor of you, actually).


  29. I’m the Chief Product Officer @Klout – we are asked all the time about Follower counts and how they impact our influence score. And our answer is simple: we don’t care about follower counts. This is an excellent post Robert – thanks for broadening the discussion of the issue well beyond Twitter.


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