When I decide whether or not to follow someone on Twitter, I always visit their profile page–even if I already know I’m going to follow them because of a tweet they made, or their bio blurb, or a recommendation. I’m following around 1500 people now. At a rough guess, 500 of those might be people who I followed because they are famous, or famous-ish, or connected to famous things (i.e., TV writers, directors, producers.) Those folks didn’t really undergo scrutiny, other than to decide if the account was really that person, or a fake. But the other 1000 or so were strangers, and I visited most of their profile pages in order to decide whether to make a connection with them.

Everyone has their own reasons and uses for Twitter, and aside from flat-out scammy spammers, I hold no grudges against anyone for how they do their thing there. You hear a lot about supposed norms or etiquette on Twitter, and how much you are supposed to do this or that, but I don’t subscribe to those in general. The people who are pushing these norms are just one part of a small wave of an interpersonal revolution that is ultimately beyond anyone’s ability to fully grasp or reliably predict. In my opinion, to say there’s a certain right or wrong way to do Twitter actually shows a lack of understanding of what’s happening. There’s only one rule: 140 characters or less.

With that said, we each have our own vision of what we’re trying to get from Twitter, just as we do with what we’re giving to it. So I do have likes, dislikes and preferences, when it comes to who I decide to follow on Twitter. (The folks I decide not to follow aren’t doing it wrong; I just don’t want to follow them.) When I go to a person’s profile page, here are some of the factors I consider when deciding whether to follow or not:

  • For starters, I try and determine if it’s an actual person tweeting real things, and not just selling things. Pure spam accounts are usually pretty easy to detect. The worst of them have outrageous following/follower ratios, meaning they are following many many times more people than are following them back. (Like 800 vs 2, or 1800 vs 120, etc.) And the other worst of them just have a constant flow of super-salesy tweets that just say the same things over and over and over. (Some of those accounts manage to get thousands of people to follow them back, and when I see that, it makes me wonder dark things about the fundamental reality of “follower” counts on Twitter.)
  • If you haven’t tweeted more than once, I will probably only follow you if you are local to me, or there’s something really compelling in your bio or link. I’m not someone who hates on folks who don’t tweet a lot or at all–I’m patient like that, and I know from running a web community that most folks are “lurkers” online, meaning they just don’t post much. However, spammers also use the trick of not tweeting anything at first, hoping you’ll fall for the innocent-looking newbie’s profile. So I pass unless I have good cause to believe the newbie is real and sincere; it’s not worth the risk (of encouraging spam on Twitter).
  • Whether they follow me is not a make-or-break criteria at all. I’d say it can put someone over the fence if I don’t see other reasons I should follow them. If they follow me, they made some sort of positive determination about me, so they can’t be 100% bad. But I won’t follow someone whose tweets I don’t like just because they follow me.
  • Unless the account is a media outlet of some sort, I hope to see actual words that the person wrote from their own brain. Meaning, not just quotes, retweets, and headline/link tweets. I’m here to connect with other people–specifically their minds, for the most part. If your mind isn’t on display on your profile, I probably will not follow you. (Your mind doesn’t necessarily have to dazzle me; I just want to see traces of your actual individual human thought.)
  • I try to look past the one-on-one conversational tweets and find the ones that go out to everyone. Some profile pages are LOADED with back-and-forth conversations, which is fine. I like to see someone who engages folks in the back and the forth. But that’s not what I’ll mostly be seeing in my stream, so I will go down a few pages if need be to find the handful of broadcast tweets that may be there, so I get a feel for what I’m really signing up for. One slight twist on this: I do see back-and-forth conversations in my stream if I’m following both parties, and too much of that can get annoying. So if that’s a factor, I might just choose one of the parties to follow and skip the other. Or follow a couple folks from a group of friends and then stop.
  • If your follower/following counts are nearly matching and huge, I will think twice about following you. Even if you are following back, with that many tweeps, you can’t really be reading most of what you’re “following”. So you are probably a broadcaster or a broadcast-and-engage type. Twitter superstar-style. Which is all well and good, but there’s only so much of that my stream can reasonably handle. That said, I’ve had fun connecting with folks just like that from all around the world–and most of those folks will chat back and become more “real” friends at the drop of a hat. But honestly, if I follow someone who isn’t a traditional celeb who has zillions of followers, and doesn’t post tweets that are vital to me, it’s probably because I hope to gain something from getting closer to them. I also like to be inspired by successful people who have reached heights I aim to reach; there’s a fine line between those two things I suppose.
  • I need to enjoy your tweets. It may seem obvious, but these things go cruising past my face all day, and if I don’t enjoy seeing them, there’s not much point to all this. I have a very wide range of interests, and I’m happy to meet people in general, so I’m looking for a reason to follow you. I’m also looking out for reasons not to follow, but the bias leans toward the former for sure. I will dig down a page or few on a profile, trying to find something that makes me think, “Well, this could be interesting.” If I see something, I’ll probably follow.
  • Thanks, but I’m really not looking for that many more links in my life right now. It’s nothing personal–I’m an information junkie just like you probably are–I’m just getting more than I need already. Accumulating open browser tabs is my main Twitter-related problem. So while of course I expect and even hope you share some web stuff in your tweets, if that’s your main or only thing, I’ll probably pass just because I’m totally full. Over-full really. If headlines and links are all you post, you’ll need to be a really interesting politics, writing, or entertainment resource, or I’m definitely going to pass.
  • Ditto quotes and inspirational retweets–I’m full. When I was co-editor of The Simplifier for ~4 years, one of my jobs was to find the quote for each issue. In the course of that work, I sifted through thousands of quotations, inspirational and otherwise. I still get a few here and there in my Twitter stream, and I will even retweet one on occasion, but I don’t need a solid stream of them. An exception goes to people who tweet primarily their own inspirational thoughts. That’s a different story. If you have inspirational stuff to say from your own brain, you’ve probably got my ear.
  • I’m a sucker for the ladies. Judge me if you must, but I might follow someone mostly because I’d like to see her pic floating down my stream every now and then. (If that sounded like a GOB-or-Lindsay Bluth -style awkward double entendre, congrats to you for noticing. Now let me lay my sweet crown upon your head…) But see all other caveats above–I’m not going to sign on for spam or anything else I don’t like just to see a hottie’s thumbnail picture now and then. I may be a sucker, but I’m no loser. ;-)

That’s about it for now. I may update this post over time, as I continue to try and develop the right balance and a smart method for following. My process is definitely a work in progress.

Maybe these rough guidelines will be helpful in some way; I honestly couldn’t say whether my views represent many other people on Twitter or not.

Do any of my guidelines match up with yours? Do they surprise you? Frighten you? Excite you? Will you write a furious diary entry about them, sitting under the hanging coats in the back of your closet, lit only by the bare-lightbulb lamp sitting on the floor next to you?