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Social networks have trained us to think in follower counts

Social networks have trained us to think in follower counts

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

I’m calling this week’s episode of Why’d You Push That Button the “politics of unfollowing.” What makes someone click that unfollow button, and why does it hurt our feelings when they do?

Kaitlyn and I talk to two of our Verge colleagues: Managing Editor T.C. Sottek and Senior Features Editor Michael Zelenko about why they unfollow people. T.C. only follows six people on Twitter! And he only started following me and Kaitlyn after we produced this episode. We appreciate that kind gesture. Michael, on the other hand, used to care about his follower versus following ratio and has now reached a point of zen. Who cares!

After all that, Kaitlyn and I take our questions to Jenn Herman, who calls herself “the world’s forefront Instagram blogger.” Jenn is fantastic and made us feel good. She points out that followers are a complete construction of tech companies. They made us care about followers. They’ve ruined us. Jenn, though, she gets it. She’s helping us.

You can listen to the episode here or anywhere else you find podcasts, like Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Play Music, and our RSS feed. Also, read the transcript with Jenn below.

Ashley: Hi, Jenn. Could you explain what you do?

Jenn Herman: I work with clients, primarily to help them understand social media strategy. I work with them to figure out what they should be doing to get... Whatever their ROI is, whether they want more sales, whether they want more traffic. Not necessarily just to grow followers, but obviously that ties into that component as you want to have a bigger audience so you can have more people to sell to or those sorts of things.

Kaitlyn: So how do you tell people to think about the following, the follow vs. following ratio?

I do get a lot of people that reach out to me and they’re like, “How do I get more followers?” A lot of people are really focused on the number that is following them. Most of the time I usually tell them to calm down and relax and not stress out about it, it will happen naturally. It is one of those things where I think people put too much of an onus on it and I think we are seeing a shift where even Facebook now is minimizing where you can see how many people follow a page. They’re trying to make it less of a popularity contest. I think that there may be a shift in that direction to not put such a big emphasis on your following count. But of course, things like Instagram when it comes to influencer marketing, people want to see how big is your audience, are you talking to 1,000 people, 100,000 people, a million people and that does play a factor for a lot of people as influencers and that sort of thing.

It does matter to an extent but that being said, for me the bigger issue is an engagement component. If you have 100,000 followers but you’re only getting 100 likes on your photos, then you don’t have an engaged audience. If you’ve got a 100,000 followers and you’re getting 5,000 likes on a photo, then great, you have a good engaged audience. It’s more where that engagement ratio is and how the conversations are going on you’re existing content, rather than the individual follower count.

Ashley: So what about if I have 200 followers but they always love my posts, all of them, would that be worth anything at all?

Depending on what you’re going for, absolutely, I mean I’ve always said, I would rather work with somebody who has 1,000 loyal, dedicated followers, than somebody who has a million casual followers. Because if you’ve got 200; 500; 1,000; 5,000 followers and you’ve got super high engagement rates and if you’re posting, they’re commenting, they’re liking. And if you say, “Hey, I’m using this product,” then they’re all going to go out and buy it. I’d rather work with somebody with 200 followers because, A, I’m probably going to get 200 customers out of it and B, I can probably work with that small influencer for almost nothing. As a brand, you’re not going to have to pay them out tens of thousands of dollars for a post, you can probably give them free product and get 200 new customers versus somebody who considers themselves a macro influencer with a million followers, you’re probably going to have to pay them thousands of dollars for them to do a promotive post and then on top of it, you may still only get 200 of their million followers engaged.

So you can get way more as brand when you work with those smaller influencers, who have much more direct integration with their audiences. Their audiences are usually more likely to respond to them and trust them. They don’t feel like they’re constantly being pushed as an influencer, so they’re more likely to respond, too.

Kaitlyn: So do your clients ever ask you to diagnose why am I being unfollowed, like, why is my follow count dropping?

All the time, I get questions about that weekly. Even from people who aren’t my paying clients, people who just email me and be like, “Why are followers going away?” There’s usually a few reasons. One is that if you do have a lot of potentially spam accounts following, meaning if you use certain hashtags, popular hashtags, it may generate those automated followers. What could happen is Instagram regularly goes through and does delete and they actually clean up inactive or spam-like accounts. We will all find those times where all of a sudden you lose 100 followers overnight or even 1,000 followers overnight and you’re like, “Whoa, what just happened?” Chances are it was asleep. My opinion, that’s a good thing, get rid of those one hundred, 500,000, whatever people that are not actively engaging with your content anyways. I rather they be gone.

That’s not something that you ever need to worry about from that perspective and then it is one of those things where it could be — I do usually ask them if it doesn’t seem like it was a sweep — I will ask them, “Okay, have you posted certain content recently, did you overwhelm your audience with a lot of content all of a sudden? Did you post something that’s not in line with your normal branding?” Sometimes people just... Maybe they went to a live event or they went to, whether it’s a conference or something like that, and they posted a boatload of photos from an event and their audience was like, “Oh my gosh, I just got 12 photos from this person, it’s too much.” And now they’re going to unfollow them. Sometimes you can kind of war game it from that perspective and see whether there was something that came up that caused it.

Honestly, if someone emails me or calls me and says, “Hey, I lost five followers last night.” I’m like, “Really, five?” It’s okay, it happens, you have to realize that you are not everybody’s cup of tea. And that is okay, that’s actually a good thing. We don’t want you to be appealing to everybody. And some people will follow you and just decide that they don’t want to follow you anymore and that’s okay. I rather have them leave and know that they’re not my ideal client and that way I can keep making content and talking to people who are more likely to actually convert in some way for the business.

Ashley: I mean, I do a lot of hate follows.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, same.

Ashley: I can think of one specific influencer who everything she posts, I can’t. I share it with all my friends though, because I’m like, “Look how dumb she is!” I can’t unfollow. It’s horrible. I hate the hate follow.

Kaitlyn: I hate follow more on Twitter, I think.

Twitter is probably a bit easier because you can kind of like... Instagram is actually going to clog up your feed and you’re like, “No, I don’t want to see your content.” But I think we all have those people that we kind of do... I like that term, the hate follow, that you’re just kind of like, I just need to see what they’re doing because I can’t believe how crazy it is. We all follow people for different reasons and then we go back and we unfollow them or then we’ll go back and follow them again later on, it does happen. There are people who do the follow for follow games, which you kind of already talked about, in terms of whether it’s an automated tool that they’re using or whatever it is, it goes and automatically follows people that use a certain hashtag or that post in a certain time frame or whatever it is. They’re following you for the pure intention of expecting you to follow them back and if you don’t follow them back in 24 to 72 hours, whatever their limit is, then they’re going to unfollow you and that totally happens all the time.

I always tell people, I’m like, so, they’re not genuinely interested in you, they’re following you because they’re a robot programmed to look for your content. And they don’t really care about you either. So who cares if they unfollowed you three days later? They didn’t care about you in the first place, move on.

Kaitlyn: I don’t know if you tell people to do this or what your stance is on this. But the thing where people will follow and unfollow and follow and unfollow you over and over so that you keep getting the follow notification in hopes of eventually you’ll follow back. Do you ever advise people to do that or is that just like-

Ashley: Sad.

Kaitlyn: Sad tactic, yeah.

Jenn: It’s totally sad. I mean it’s one thing to do ... Here’s the thing, if you really want to get someone’s attention, follow them and then actually engage with their content. Leave comments, like their posts, the whole follow, unfollow and then a week later you follow them again. That’s annoying, it’s weird, it’s like, okay, do you follow me because you want to see my content or you don’t? If you just keep doing the follow, unfollow, repeatedly hoping to constantly show up in their notifications, I’m going to be like, okay, I already looked at your account, I know I’m not interested in you. I don’t care, you’re wasting your time. Instead, if they actually follow, whether it’s a brand, a celebrity, a person, friend, whatever it is, and go in and actually comment on their photos, they’re more likely to develop some sort of community relationship of conversation that is more likely to lead to either a follow in return or that sort of thing.

That’s the thing, it really comes down to having a genuine conversation and genuine engagement. Just the constant follow, unfollow for attention is not going to drive any results for you.

Ashley: I will admit I have done the follow, unfollow.

Kaitlyn: Oh my God, to who?

Ashley: Not repetitively.

Kaitlyn: To who?

Ashley: Well, I don’t want to put people on blast, but I take it very personally because I don’t do this to Kim Kardashian or something, obviously Kim is not following me back, which is depressing. But I do this to people who perhaps work at The Verge.

Kaitlyn: Shut up.

Ashley: Yes. And that’s our website if you weren’t aware, so our co-workers. And I’m like, okay, I don’t necessarily care about your content but we work together and I support you, you should support me, that just feels right.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Ashley: To not follow back, honestly feels rude.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, my favorite follow is the one that kind of feels like a threat, where it’s like, minor celebrities who will follow anyone on Twitter who says anything about them.

Ashley: Like Food God.

Kaitlyn: Ansel Elgort followed me on Twitter after I wrote three blog posts where I basically called him an idiot. Then a month later followed me on Twitter, and I was like, this seems ominous.

Ashley: Why do you think losing a follower or not being followed back, I guess — I think they’re kind of the same thing — hurts so bad?

Especially when you are an individual, when you’re using Instagram or Twitter as yourself, there is that innate human nature to want to be accepted. To want people to like you and so when someone doesn’t follow you back, you’re like, why? Why won’t you follow me? Even what you were saying with your co-workers. We’re co-workers, you should be following me, we go to lunch together but you can’t follow me on Instagram. What the heck? There is, I think part of that... It’s kind of the same thing with people that go out and they post these on Instagram and if they don’t get 100 likes within an hour, they take it down. I’m like, why? I think we all have this innate desire to be liked and be popular and it does hurt, we kind of take it a bit personally when someone doesn’t follow back or if they unfollow us.

Trust me, I’ve had people that I consider friends that have unfollowed me on Twitter or on Instagram and I’m like, oh my God, why would you unfollow me? What did I ever do? And you do kind of take it personally. You kind of just have to realize it’s social media, people use it for different reasons. Whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, anything, I always encourage people to follow the people that you want to see. Whether it’s celebrities, whether it’s businesses, whether it’s individual people, family, friends. All the people whose content you want to see because if you’re following people you don’t care about, and their content is cluttering your feed, then you’re not going to want to log in and use that platform if it’s full of annoying stuff from people you don’t like.

I just have to accept the fact that sometimes I’m not what people what to see in their feed and that’s okay. I use my Instagram as a very professional environment and if people want to see photos of my daughter, they’re not going to see that on Instagram. Okay, that makes sense then you probably don’t want to follow me there. I think we just need to not take it so personal and realize that people use social media for different reasons and it’s okay that someone doesn’t want to follow us. Not that they don’t like us, they just don’t like our content.

Kaitlyn: I refuse to accept that someone doesn’t want to see me in their feed. Another thing we talked about is the unfollow versus mute. I am of the mind that a mute is cowardly and perhaps even meaner than unfollowing because it’s something I would do... It’s something I have done to friends of mine from college, where I’m like, you’ll probably notice if I don’t follow you, but your tweets suck.

Ashley: T.C., who Kaitlyn interviewed earlier, he’s our managing editor here at The Verge. He pointed out that he unfollowed basically everyone and part of the reason he did that is because when he muted them he forgot to unmute them. And then he never saw them again. Whereas if he sorts everyone into lists, he can remove them from the list and then organically they’ll pop up into his feed through retweets or something. And he’ll be like, oh, I forgot about them, let me add them back to the list. He feels like just doing the unfollow was rude at once and now it’s done.

Kaitlyn: Well, the mute is also bad because sometimes people can figure it out via context clues. If they’re replying to your tweet or something and you never respond, that can get bad.

I have to admit the mute is kind of, because you said it blocks every kind of thing, it really does... If they’re trying to reach out to you or someone else is replying to you and that person, and now you’re not seeing their content or anything, it can be really awkward. I use the, I don’t know what they call it now, I think it’s mute or something like that on Facebook. I’ve used that for that a high school friend who has gone into direct MLM marketing sales type thing, who I was like, I legit can’t stand your posts on Facebook, I’m going to die. And so I muted her for 30 days, because I was like, let me just see, maybe it will just quiet down and literally on day 31, Facebook flooded my feed with her content again and I was like, nope, unfollow, bye-bye, I can’t do it. I legit unfollowed her, I didn’t unfriend her, because I don’t want her to realize that I unfriended her, but I at least unfollowed her so I wouldn’t see her content anymore.

So there are times and places where you want to use that kind of secret mute, you don’t want them to be unfriended and don’t want to be obvious about it that you’re not seeing their content. But it is kind of shady when you pull the mute button, I’m not even going to lie, it’s shady. You don’t want to see the person’s content, just unfollow them or unfriend them or whatever it is and just move on. We’re all grown-ups.

Ashley: We’re getting toward the end of our questioning here, but this is your business. You clearly have dealt with many people who are working through these issues, so do you think we’re all taking followers and follower counts and everything that has to do with following too seriously?

Honestly, yes. I have some clients that they just won’t let it go. I’m like, oh my gosh, seriously calm down, it’s okay. Like I said, for me the biggest thing when working with those clients is looking and changing their perspective, especially from a business context to say let’s look at a different metric, whether your follower count goes up or down or whether it goes up slowly or quickly, let’s look at something that’s more tangible to you. Let’s look at website clicks or let’s look at traffic that you’re generating from either a promotion or a campaign. What you’re generating in sales. Let’s look and see how’s your engagement, are your comments going up or down, are your likes on your individual posts going up or down. I try to direct them to a different metric that they can better translate into a direct business relationship.

So obviously, you can turn around and say, look compared to six months ago, you’re getting three times as many website clicks, then whether or not their follower count grew doesn’t matter because they got three times more website traffic, which is more likely to lead to conversion. Now when you’re working with influencers and you’re working with individual people, they tend to not see the world in those kind of statistics and those sort of metrics because they don’t care. They’re more interested in the popularity side of it and so you have to find another metric that makes sense to them in terms of what is success. Because so many of us do put the evaluation of success on our follower count. Whether or not that goes away or stays, who knows, but I do think we put a little too much emphasis on it.

Even when I started out, even a few years ago, I only had a couple thousand followers on Instagram, but I was blogging about Instagram all the time and I’m speaking at all these conferences and people are like, they would call me up, they’re like, so you speak at all these conferences as an Instagram expert but you have 2,500 followers. I’m like, yeah but look at my engagement ratios and look at my conversion. So to me and I’ve built that audience organically, I took it from scratch. I didn’t go out and buy followers, I didn’t play games. I’m like, hey these are the people who found me, who legitimately care enough to follow me. So that’s my justification. But in my opinion, yes, we put a little too much emphasis on follower count.

Ashley: Do you have any ideas or have you thought about how platforms can change, like Instagram or Twitter or even Facebook, I guess, to maybe emphasize followers or what you would like to see as far as following counts go?

I think that from both Instagram and Twitter, it’s so easy to follow somebody, that there’s an expectation of having higher follower counts. That’s where you get people buying followers and they started a business and all of a sudden they have 100,000 followers on Twitter and you’re like, really, because you’re this tiny little small business. How did you find 100,00 people in a week? And it’s because they bought them. We know that, and I think the average consumer is smart enough to realize how social media works, and I would like to see, like I said, a shift in, whether it’s engagement ratio or some other metric that is representative of an active audience. I think, even when I work with brands who want to work with influencers, I say, I don’t care about their follower count, go look at their engagement ratio. How many likes per post are they getting? How many retweets per tweet are they getting? How many comments and responses are they getting? Because that’s going to give you a much more accurate reconciliation in terms of, what their audience is doing with their content.

I’m not sure how that would be readily changed for either Instagram or Twitter as an actual recognized demographic, but could you imagine if all of a sudden your engagement ratio was listed right up there with your follower count? All of sudden everyone would be vying for comments like nobody’s business. It would be a whole new way to gain the system. B Because everyone would want to get their engagement count up.

Kaitlyn: Oh sorry, I was just going to say that sounds really bleak to me.

Ashley: 90 percent retweet rate.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Ashley: Very snackable thoughts.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, exactly. That sounds devastating.

That’s the thing, even I would be like, oh my god, sometimes my engagement rate is down at less than one percent. I would look abysmal. It would be bad, but it would force people to look at a different metric and a different way of creating content. Rather than just creating the content for the sake of creating content, they actually create the content to get results. And I know it would lead to a ton of gaming of the system and stuff like that, but it would be interesting to see if they could put a different metric out there as a way to analyze .

Ashley: That is interesting because it really is just an artificial creation from these tech companies. They created followers, and they made it prominent. So they made it a thing.

Kaitlyn: Instagram’s fiddling with doing the follows you, follow back, whatever prompts. It’s fine to have to go click on someone’s followers and search for your name to see if they follow you. I don’t need to be slapped in the face with that information. It’s too obvious on Twitter, I think. I don’t know, just last week I got unfollowed by a notable New York City writer who, when she followed me two years ago, it was a big deal for me because I was 22 years old, and no one knew who I was. She unfollowed me out of spite and I was confronted with that information because of Twitter’s design.

Ashley: If only you had your retweet rate up front and center, she wouldn’t have unfollowed.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, had she known my engagement rate, perhaps she would have thought twice.