The Beauty of Twitter's Unfollow Bug

Gabriel Rossman -- Sociologist at UCLA.  His work applies economic sociology to media industries. He blogs at Code and Culture and is the author of Climbing the Charts.

For decades the term "social network" was beloved by sociologists but generally unknown to mortal men. Now that Facebook is set to IPO at a market cap of eleventy gajillion dollars and it has become obligatory for firms to have a "social media strategy" you might expect sociologists would be thrilled that our baby's all growed up and wound up being prom queen. To a large extent we are, especially when we see it as an all you can eat buffet for data that obviates the hassle of surveying people, but there is a strong undercurrent of "yer doin it wrong" to how we feel about this.*

There are a variety of ways that, for better or worse, computer-mediated social network services differ from naturally-occurring social networks. For instance, until Google+ introduced Circles and Facebook adopted a similar feature, social network services required you to have a single personae displayed to all your alters and as Kieran Healy observed this is deeply unnatural. Another big difference between social network services & natural social networks is the former discourage decay of old ties. For some people this is the whole appeal, they get on Facebook so as to stay in touch with their old high school friends, but there are problems with it.

Offline, old ties decay over time. If you don't actively maintain a tie it gradually weakens and dissolves. In contrast on a computer-mediated social network service a tie persists indefinitely by default no matter how little it is used and you have to take active steps to dissolve a tie. This will tend to lead to networks cluttered with the detritus of old relationships for two reasons. First, it's a hassle to go through the spring cleaning of actively culling people from your list. (Google+ Circles never took off for a similar reason). Second, it feels mean. This was exactly why Burger King created "whopper sacrifice" (in which you unfriended Facebook friends to get burgers) as part of its Crispin Porter & Bogusky era strategy to brand itself as the official fast food chain of America's assholes. There is a huge difference between drifting apart and "unfriending" and the difference is such that when the system architecture assumes the latter many of us will allow ourselves to maintain a Facebook tie with someone we'd just as soon not hear from anymore rather than give offense through actively repudiating them.

For these reasons I actually kind of love Twitter's unfollow bug, in which you unfollow people people at random. Sociologists sometimes talk about whether a tie persists after a random disruption as an indicator of the tie's strength. For instance, if an executive on the board of two corporations dies, do they re-establish the board tie by placing another executive from firm A on firm B's board? When Julia died in childbirth did G. Julius Casear marry off another of his female relatives to Pompey Magnus?** If two actors do reestablish a tie, this indicates that it was a meaningful tie and not just happenstance in the first place.

Imagine if Twitter randomly unfollows you from my feed. I may unsuccessfully try to DM you or I may wonder why I haven't seen your tweets lately or I may even see you getting retweeted into my feed or if we also talk by e-mail or face-to-face one of us may mention "did you see what I was saying on Twitter." That is, if there was a strong tie it will pretty quickly re-establish itself after a shock. In contrast, let's suppose Twitter unfollows you from my feed and I don't notice, in this case it's apparently just as well (and perhaps better as I no longer have to scroll past your tweets). The real beauty of it though is that if you notice I am no longer following you there's ambiguity as to why. It might be I got sick of you retweeting Kim Kardashian or it could be that there was a glitch at the server, you really can't know and so you can't take offense. Polite evasion is an underrated principle of social interaction and it's nice to see Twitter arrive at it by accident. So my advice to Twitter is to take the engineers who are working on this "problem" and reassign them to something that actually should be fixed, like dropped punctuation characters. #slatepitches


* Yes, I know there's an irony that people in a politically correct pseudo-science that exists primarily as a dumping ground for undergraduates unsuited for rigorous studies would presume to ankle-bite the achievements of billionaires. All I can say is that this is all we have and I beg you not to take it from us, oh wise and merciful denizens of the comment thread.

** For those of you in the back, no, they didn't re-establish their marriage alliance. Her death was followed almost immediately by a civil war, then the dictatorship of Caesar, then another civil war, and then the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Of course that's not to say that Julia's death caused the civil war, only that it allowed long-standing tensions to reassert themselves. The real surprise is Caesar and Pompey formed the marriage alliance in the first place, which basically cemented a sort of political realignment in which figures from the old Sullan faction (Pompey and Crassus) seized power together with a figure from the old Marian faction (Caesar). After the death of Julia, Pompey went back to his alliance with the Senate.