Blocking people for using auto-follow software


The internet, like real-life society, only really works if people refrain from behaving badly; if people are prepared for a little give-and-take, a little co-operations, politeness and common sense.

When they don’t the internet doesn’t work – or you get these ghastly corners of the internet like Comment Is Free, The Huffington Post or Youtube comments section. Revenge porn websites, hate-filled fora and, perhaps worst of all, those people who spam Twitter with proclamations of loyalty to Justin Bieber (as an aside, could Justin Bieber seriously mobilise an army to mount on attack on a government of his choosing?).

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Twitter is often the battleground of choice for outbreaks of bad behaviour on the internet. Spam is hardly unknown on the platform, it frequently degenerates into a bitchfest in angry 140 mouthfuls and it’s full of shameless self-promoters (I’m definitely one of them, but it’s cute when I do it).

The most egregious thing on Twitter, however, is the rampant use of AutoFollow technology. The concept is fairly simple: you give your Twitter login details to some dodgy plugin, set your parameters and fire it off, like a chain letter wasting everyone’s time, patience and goodwill.

The idea behind this is that people will be flattered by the follow from someone they’ve never heard and follow back. So far so harmless? Well, perhaps, but it also reduces Twitter to a pointless scrum to gain followers for virtually no reason whatsoever: followers gained like this haven’t been earned, they’ve no loyalty to you or interest in you and will be disinclined to click on your banal links to get-rich-quick schemes and marketing wibble. They’re fundamentally followers that have no value to you. What’s more it reduces your stream to total nonsense – a cacophony of incoherent babbling. So it renders Twitter fundamentally useless to autofollowers as a communication tool.

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It get worse, though. If you don’t follow back within a certain period of time you will be probably be automatically unfollowed; there’s a good chance you’ll be unfollowed even if you do follow back. It’s taking without giving.

The reason for this virtual arms war is simply to get as many people to follow you as is humanly – or robotically – possible, so you can wave your Twitter count at the ingenuous like an artificially-inflated virtual willy. This is frequently for reasons of simple vanity, but it’s also used to fool other followers into thinking you’re important – and this is where it becomes obnoxious – as opposed to simply idiotic, selfish or a bit rude.

There are a lot of people who have no idea how the Internet works. And that means there are vast markets for the unscrupulous, the bullshitters, the snake-oil sellers and the fast-buck merchants. I have been asked by many PRs and marketing execs whether I can give them some tips on getting ‘a Twitter’ or on getting to the front page of the SERPS (‘being high up in Google’ in their parlance).

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I have, on occasion, run social media campaigns for clients, but it’s always come with the proviso that it needs to be part of an overall, long-term digital strategy that includes some genuinely useful and engaging content and is run in alignment with existing on- and offline strategies. People rarely like to hear that something is difficult and could be expensive, which may explain why I’ve never made a career out of it.

Making a career out of this axis of nonsense where SEO, digital marketing and social media intersect would be a piece of cake however, as there are simply so many companies out there who have a vague idea that they need to spend money in this area, without the slightest idea of how or why. Where there are clueless CEOs there are fat cheques for doing fuck all.


Which is where autofollow technology comes in. People who don’t understand Twitter may be impressed that you have 30,000 followers; they may believe that it shows that you know what you’re doing. “We want 30,000 Twitter followers,'” they think. “Perhaps @SEObiz2013 is the person to get me there; then we will have a Twitter and sell many more industrial heat-exchangers.”

Needless to say, this is totally bogus reasoning. But in the kingdom of the blind the 30K-Twitter account is King. And now that the arse-end has fallen out of SEO as the online chancer’s favoured hunting ground, the untapped landscape of social media is next up.

Blocking autofollowers

That’s why I will be blocking anyone I suspect of using autofollow technology. It reduces Twitter to a pointless popularity contest where everyone follows everyone and no-one interacts meaningfully any more. It ruins something that I happen to believe is a potentially brilliant medium, far more than Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or many others at present.

There may be reasons for using autofollow plugins on Twitter, but I can’t think of any good ones. Some innocents may get blocked in the process, some people who might genuinely be interested in what I have to say and share on Twitter might miss out – and I might miss out on whatever they have to say – but that’s what the thoughtless deployment of these witless widgets do. They ruin the internet for everyone.

Want to join in? Have a look below at how to spot people using autofollow technology – I recommend that you do the sensible thing and give them the virtual finger. It’s the only language they understand.

Follow these simple rules and we can make Twitter a better place for us, our children, our children’s children and… well, you get the idea.

How to spot autofollowers on Twitter

Never interacted with you

Excessive use of hashtags in bio

Excessive blind links in bio

Keywords in bio likely to include SEO, SEM, content marketing, content strategy, digital strategy, online marketing, maven, networker, hero, incubator, investor, guru

Closely similar amount of following and followers OR vast discrepancy between follower and following

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Tens of thousands of tweets

Post links to vague ‘how to’-style videos or articles

Links posted are often via share buttons direct from websites, rather than manually entered

Use Twitter client to autopost, generally on the hour

Banal positive-thinking quotes posted on daily basis

Unlikely to have significant interest in what you’re tweeting (ie. they’re a Californian tech gadge tweeting about marketing, start-ups and their coffee; you live in Sunderland and tweet about football and TOWIE)

Live in a different country

Don’t interact with followers

Tweets include many variations on sharing the same link multiple times

Follower count at or around large round number (eg. 1,000 or 10,000)

No mutual followers

Dull logo, obvious stock portrait or Californian sunset as avatar

Header or background = generic aspirational image

• The images used in this article are from genuine Twitter accounts who recently followed me (apart from the one at the top) and I suspect of using autofollow software. No further implications are intended. It’s also come to my attention that there’s an actual website under the URL – no association intended there either.

Embedding Tweets: Ed Balls

I love Twitter as a platform, though I occasionally despise the way that people use it. Still, I find it a fascinating and genuinely useful platform and have been evangelising to my social media students on its uses recently.

Let me count the ways: As a means to source opinion, quotes and contacts; as a platform from which to broadcast; as a much better replacement for RSS readers; as an unparalleled and unprecedented forum for following news and events live (more quickly, even, that 24-hour news channels); as a jumping-off point for all sorts of ideas for blog posts and articles.

Twitter is pretty open about sharing and its API allows for all sorts of uses – as a result there’s loads of functionality – embedding tweets has been quickly taken up by all sorts of news sites. I’ve previously used Hootsuite to embed searches, but Twitter also allows users to create a widget for particular phrases.

I couldn’t remember how to do it today, so thought I’d look it up. Here’s a Twitter search for #edballs using Twitter’s proprietary widget (goto Settings>Widget>Creat New Widget on Twitter for all of the following stuff), followed by the Hootsuite widget:

Embarrassingly, the Twitter widget doesn’t work and the Hootsuite widget does. Moreover the Hootsuite widget is easy to create and the app even gives you prompts to save your searches as a stream. So, while I take my hat off to Twitter for allowing people to use data in this way, the Twitter client is far more user-friendly.

Browser software? Flash issues? Incorrect mark-up? Who cares? It doesn’t work. And who can be bothered to figure out why something isn’t working in these impatient interweb days? Not I. The moral? Use Hootsuite.

Ed Balls’ Twitter timeline? No problem. Plenty of applications for embedding live timelines from specific accounts.

What about Ed Balls’ Favourites? Frankly I can’t think of any reason anyone would want to do such a thing, at least in this case. However, what if you run a celebrity gossip, music or fashion website or blog? Chances are you might want to embed a list of a particular A-lister’s favourite tweets.

Say you want to tailor a specific collection of tweets that you have curated yourself? One this this guy, another from that lady. A few from yourself, perhaps with some media to curate a story. No problem – Twitter allows you to create collections through another third-party client, Tweetdeck, and then create a widget of that collection and whack it into your CMS. Or use Storify. Here’s some reactions to Ed Balls Day that made me laugh.

Anyway, why this search term? Well, I don’t think I’ve laughed quite so much at a tweet as the one below, released into the Twittersphere by the Shadow Chancellor today. Epic.

EDIT: Twitter sorted out its search embeds and stopped third parties offering this sort of hack. So now the Hootsuite one doesn’t work and the Twitter one does. I updated this post to reflect added functionality.