Freakonomics: The etiquette of 'following' on Twitter

This picture taken on January 27, 2010 in Paris shows the internet homepage of the microblogging website Twitter.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we spend some time with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. Dubner, I'll tell ya, it is spectacular to have you back.

Stephen Dubner: Hi there. I am happy to back on @mktplaceradio. Last time, left me ROFL! Wanted to get back ASAP. Two weeks away is too long! #imisskai

Ryssdal: Obviously we're talking today about Twitter.

Dubner: That was 140 characters worth of hello, Kai, exactly 140 characters.

Ryssdal: Was it really?

Dubner: Yep. Including exclamation points.

Ryssdal: Now, since we are talking about Twitter, first of all, I'm @kairyssdal, and you guys are @freakonomics. But here's the thing: You guys are jerks, in like Twitter-land, right? I mean, you have like 250,000 people following you, and yet you follow no one.

Dubner: We follow zero people, yeah. So some people, like you, might call us jerks -- since we're talking Twitter here, they might call us "twerks."

Ryssdal: Yeah, I never liked the whole "tw" in front of words. But anyway, that's just cold, it's like rude, right? Marketplace follows 350-something people.

Dubner: Yeah, I see you followed the Financial Times and Politico, Nascar, David Lynch. And I see you also follow Freakonomics, so thank you for that.

Ryssdal: We do because we are reciprocal kind of people here, obviously not like you. And I actually enjoy myself a little Nascar. But you won't even follow us. I hate that.

Dubner: Well here's the thing: When we set up our account, we were advised by very brilliant media strategists that it was bad form to expect anyone to follow us if we weren't following a whole lot of people back. But we kind of didn't want to turn it into some tit-for-tat thing, where pretty soon you're spending your whole day on Twitter worrying about whom to follow and who to be followed by.

Ryssdal: But isn't reciprocity the name of the game here? Shouldn't you follow people -- right, that's the basic point? And I've gotten myself a little expert here. I'm going to introduce you to a guy named Joe Fernandez. He's the CEO of a company named Klout, and every day, Klout analyzes data from all those bajillion tweets that are out there. They look at what gets re-tweeted, who's paid attention to, and then they give them a grade, or what's called a "Klout score." So Joe, welcome to the program.

Joe Fernandez: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Ryssdal: So talk to me about this analysis of Twitter strategy that you guys do and specifically what Dubner's doing in not following people. Is Dubner being rude here; don't you have to follow to get followers?

Fernandez: For most people, that is the case, that it's really, really tough unless you're Kanye West or something to get people to care enough about what you say without any intention of possibly even listening back.

Dubner: So here's the thing, Joe and Kai, you know for us, the way we use Twitter is just as a kind of bullhorn, to let people know what we're up to. Now Joe, I do see that the biggest tweeters in the world -- Lady Gaga and President Obama for instance -- they each follow hundreds of thousands of people. But I mean, come on, really -- do those people really think that Lady Gaga and President Obama are reading their tweets?

Fernandez: I'm guessing a lot of them probably do think that, from some of the behavior we see on Twitter. The method of using Twitter as just a broadcast medium and you're publishing content from Freakonomics, that is also powerful and it's different than a person who's using Twitter to engage with their network and their friends. For celebrities like a Lady Gaga, I think they use the follow as a small act of kindness to their fans.

Ryssdal: That's so funny. That's Stephen Dubner right there: the benevolent Twitter-er. He just lets people follow him and sort of takes all the love. Hey Joe, thanks a lot.

Fernandez: Thank you.

Ryssdal: All right, so Dubner, defend yourself, will you?

Dubner: So look Kai, I get your point. We may not be the best Twitter citizens in the world, but at least we're upfront. We don't pretend to care about people that we don't care about, and we certainly don't do the big no-no, which is the Twitter one night stand, where you sign up to follow a ton of people just to get them to follow you back and then you dump it later.

Ryssdal: Very, very cold. But I'm going to stick to my guns here and you know what, I bet the Twitter-sphere will back me up.

Dubner: Let me bring in my expert, my little Marshall McLuhan moment here. This is Duncan Watts, who's a sociologist who works as a research scientist at Yahoo. Duncan recently wrote a paper called, "Who Says What to Whom on Twitter." And Watts says it's very important that we don't confuse Twitter with social media like Facebook where reciprocity -- as you put it, Kai -- really is the coin of the realm.

Duncan Watts: It's worth emphasizing again here that Twitter is not a social network. Social networks are characterized by very, very high levels of reciprocity. So if I say that I'm friends with you, it's very likely that you will also say that you're friends with me.

Ryssdal: And I am proud, Stephen Dubner, to call you a friend. But I still think you're not a reciprocal kind of guy, so are you going to change your Twitter ways or not?

Dubner: You know, I think we're going to stick with our plan for now, but with one small change: Kai, you happen to have a computer anywhere?

Ryssdal: I do. We've got sophisticated studios here at Marketplace.

Dubner: Do me a favor. Open up the Freakonomics Twitter page, if you don't mind.

Ryssdal: All right. There it is. It's up. You're following -- hey! Are you following me? That's awesome.

Dubner: I got to tell you, I do know where to find the unfollow button on Twitter too.

Ryssdal: And so do I. I can unfollow you faster than you can unfollow me. Unbelievable. Stephen J. Dubner, you can get him on Twitter at @freakonomics. He's our Freakonomics correspondent, you can subscribe to their podcast as well and a whole lot more: FreakonomicsRadio.com. Dubner, we'll see you.

Dubner: Lots of hashtags to you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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