I received an unpleasant email the other day from someone who had bought one of my books, followed me on Twitter, and then realized I wasn't following them back. They then unfollowed me, and when I sent word about my new subscription, they wrote me back to tell me that following readers of my books was just common courtesy, which I clearly lacked.
I've let it stew in my head for a few days, and though I'm sorry I made that person feel bad, the truth is I think asymmetry—the fact that you don't have to follow back those who follow you—is one of Twitter's most important features. Let me explain.
Twitter is my social media tool of choice, both for learning and for sharing. I consider the 140 character limit an absolutely brilliant and sublime innovation and I love how it trains us all to be editors, peeling away the layers of excess. I try to follow the tenets described in Tim O'Reilly and Sarah Milstein's excellent and newly updated The Twitter Book, especially that of adding value to the conversation. Still, I consider myself a difficult person to follow on Twitter, since my tweets are divided between two very distinct topics: ebook production and Catalonia, which have a limited amount of overlap. My followers generally have to bear a fair number of tweets on the other topic, often in another language. And sometimes I tweet a lot.
In short, I'll understand if you don't follow me. I know how it is. Which leads me to the second half of my Twitter life: the 500 or so people that I currently follow. You are all amazing. I learn so much from you. And unfortunately, I can't read half of what you write. Of course, I can't read even the tiniest percentage of what's on the internet, so I figure I'm doing OK with half of your helpfully filtered stream. Thank you.
But still, I worry about the other gazillion people, my disgruntled reader among them, that I don't follow. Not because I may be hurting their feelings, but rather because I'm missing out on what they might share. I'm sure I should be following some of them, but how to know? Once in a while, I look at people's profiles, and if something catches my eye, I might check out their latest Twitter stream, but as the list of people who I follow (and my to-do list!) grow, I get more and more reluctant to add any more information to my already overflowing banks. More often, I follow people that I have conversations with, who ask interesting questions, offer interesting links or insights, or well, who can help Catalonia become independent.
So I like Twitter's asymmetry. I follow lots of people who don't follow me, and lots of people follow me that I don't follow. I am honored when someone decides I'm worth following, but rarely insulted when they don't. Being able to follow anyone without the obligation that they follow me back has allowed me to connect to a much wider group of people than any compulsory following ever would have. I can follow Roger Ebert, Elisenda Paluzie, Neil Gaiman, and Miquel Calçada without worry of imposing or being a fangirl. I believe asymmetry encourages authenticity and also allows a more gradual connection which may well end up in mutual following.
For the record, I do have a Google+ account or page, but clearly haven't been there enough to even know what it's called. I'm on LinkedIn only because I wanted to be able to access the ebook discussion groups, but honestly, I need Twitter's 140 character limit in all parts of my life, so I barely ever go there. Plus, LinkedIn always seems to know more about me than I told them and generally gives me the creeps. If I don't follow you there, or talk to you there, just talk to me on Twitter.
And though I am on Facebook, I mostly use it for personal stuff, though, truth be told, my Facebook friends get a fair bit of information about Catalonia too.