Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
September 2, 201111:54 AM

The Myth Of Reciprocity And The Social Life Of Brands

I follow you. You follow me. Right?

No. Not really. If you dig deep into the dynamics of relationships, conversations and engagement on Twitter, you'll quickly discover two camps:

  1. Those who will follow back anybody and everybody.
  2. Those who only follow back those where there is mutual benefit.

It is also clear that there are instances when it's hard to define if someone who is following you is worthy of a follow-back at first glance. Personally, I see this as an opportunity to truly extend an olive branch, provide value to the individual and figure out where there is a mutually beneficial meeting of the minds. Like any other relationship, some of them gel right from the get-go (hence the saying, "love at first sight"), while others take some time.

What's a brand to do?

For the majority of brands, the most logical and strategic play is to follow back each and every individual who has taken the time to follow, friend, like, or plus you. The mindset in this instance is to think of your brand as a media entity. If there are individuals who want to connect to you, it makes perfect sense to follow them back and leverage this group to build your audience. There is no doubt that the more people that a brand is following, the more opportunities they are creating to get their message to spread to more and more people (and this includes these individuals and their social graphs).

People are not brands.

The challenge for individuals (both celebrities and everyday people like you and I) is in figuring out how to make these bigger dynamics work most effectively. Chris Brogan (co-author of Trust Agents with Julien Smith and co-host of our Media Hacks podcast) pulled an interesting move the other day: He unfollowed everyone who was following him on Twitter (you can read all about the reasons and then some of the initial reactions here: The Great Twitter Unfollow Experiment of 2011). With nearly 200 comments (and growing) on his Blog post, it's an interesting mix of both opinions and emotions. It also shines a light on a more fascinating aspect of relationships when things go digital: what, in fact, does reciprocity mean? What is the value of following someone back?

It's simple...

Reciprocity in the social life of online media should mean that if someone connects with you, you should reciprocate and connect back - sight unseen. The problem is that reciprocity is actually not that simple. True reciprocity (as far as I can tell) is the act of both people deriving a level of value towards the mutual relationship. If people are offended by this or think otherwise, they're not interested in reciprocity... they're interested in their own, personal gain.

Reciprocity is momentary.

In the digital world, reciprocity can be momentary. If we live next door to one another and you loan me a cup of sugar, each and everyday that I walk to my car or take out my garbage, I will both remember your kind and generous act and think of ways to help you back. If you're kind enough to follow me on Twitter or Facebook but you then decide that it's not for you or you simply aren't committed to any type of engagement, it's not like you're notifying me (and I'm not spending much time thinking about you, either). So, the only way for me to find  out that you're not reciprocating beyond the initial connection is either when your account gets hacked (and I'm suddenly being spammed by you) or during some kind of Social Media clean-up where I realize we've had zero interactions.

Filter, filter and more filters.

Have you read my Blog post called, The Dirty Little Secret Of The Twitter Elite? Those who are using Twitter for their own personal gain (as most of us are) are using filters and technology like Hootsuite, TweetDeck, or Twitter Lists to filter out the noise of those who they are following, so that they can focus on those they actually derive value from. Think about the current ruckus over Google +: the number one reason people like Google + is because they can both choose and create the circles they like ("circles" is the same thing as "filters"). They can mute the people they don't know and amplify those that they truly want to be connected to. In essence, none of this is about reciprocity. The majority of people with a lot of followers and/or friends are interacting with a small handful of individuals but continue to drive for more followers and friends so that they can spread their own message far and wide.

Does that sound like reciprocity to you?

By Mitch Joel