Matt Gemmell

The Unfollower

15 min read3549 words

People puzzle me. They really do. I think most of us are probably puzzled by those around them, and the internet of course multiplies the problem to Galactic Zoo proportions.

I have a theory on this subject, you won’t be surprised to learn. My theory is that there are two types of people: those who are actively puzzled by the behaviour of others, and those who don’t think about it at all. It doesn’t even occur to this latter group that others might not think the same way as they do. There’s no third group, by the way – and certainly not the mythical category of “people who truly understand the inner world of everyone else”. You only have the two basic categories:

  1. Barely enough awareness and empathy to be confused by others.
  2. No detectable empathy whatsoever.

Whilst the internet presumably has roughly the same distribution of each group as society at large does, it often seems like group 2 is in the majority. I want to talk a bit about those people, in the context of Twitter – though this stuff applies to any form of social media.

I want to be clear on this: I love social media. I spend a lot of time on Twitter (@mattgemmell) and recently on App.Net too (also mattgemmell). I’ve met many colleagues and new friends online. It’s pretty much my primary news source, too. The vast majority of people on there, as with any subdivision of our species, are decent, easy to get along with, and generally no problem.

But there are exceptions, of course. I’d like to list them, and talk briefly about each type. In the future, I can hopefully point people to this article, and say, yep, you’re dealing with (or are) that one.

Before that, a brief preamble.

What makes you so special?

I have a moderate presence on the internet, part of which you’re currently reading. To quantify that statement, this blog currently gets about a million unique visitors a year, about two million pageviews a year, and around 15,000 feed-pulls per day. I also have more than 20,000 followers on Twitter.

Those aren’t huge numbers, but they’re for a personal blog and personal social media profiles, so: lucky me / humble-brag / etc.

But it’s not luck, of course, because people don’t subscribe to a blog or follow you on Twitter randomly. Instead, they do it because they discovered the blog or person somehow, and liked what they read. Nobody signed them up without their permission; it’s opt-in. That’s what I love about the numbers, even though yours are probably bigger: I did that, with my own output. We all need validation, after all.

Fairly often, I get asked “how did you get so many Twitter followers?” Sometimes, people even ask if I paid to get followers, which apparently is a thing you can do. I didn’t. I assume that if you did, your new followers would be somewhere in the region of 95% easily-detected spambots, instead of Twitter’s usual ambient 30% or so.

There are really two honest answers to how I got my readership, and here they are:

  1. I write interesting/amusing things.
  2. I give people stuff.

You could add a third answer, in reference to the other two: whilst I certainly manage to offend people semi-regularly, I at least give the impression of mostly being a reasonably OK guy. Most people require that one, or the other two lose their attraction quickly. That’s a sensible state of affairs.

Human psychology isn’t very complex. If you derive benefit from someone, you keep them around; otherwise, they’re probably gone. Simple. As to what exactly I write that’s interesting, well that’s up to you. I’d guess that most people read the blog for its development/technical/design-focused articles. I think most people follow me on Twitter for both that stuff and also pithy/quotable remarks on same, and I know that the things I give people are mostly open source components for iOS and Mac. Sometimes, people have heard me speak at a conference, or read something I’ve written in a magazine too. It’s the same deal. That’s what people get from me. That’s why they hang around. That’s all fine, and to be expected.

There’s an observed effect whereby the more followers you have, the quicker you get new ones, because more people are sharing your stuff with their followers. It stands to reason. That’s what happened (and happens) with me, over the course of the 6 years I’ve had my Twitter account, and the 8 years I’ve been writing here on the blog. There’s no mystery about that.

Over that time, and because of the growing readership, statistically I’ve inevitably encountered some of the aforementioned less desirable types of people online. I will now categorise them for my own amusement (and yours too, if you like).

The Unfollower

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, here’s a brief summary of how it works:

  1. You post short messages (tweets) on it. You have a specific name, just like you have a specific email address. You can “mention” other people by including their name in your tweet, and they’ll see it (as will anyone else who follows both of you).
  2. If you want to see another person’s messages, you “follow” them. Then their messages show up in your “stream” of messages.
  3. Thus, you have a set of people you’re following, and you also have a set of followers (people who are following you). This list doesn’t have to be symmetrical; you’re free not to follow someone who follows you, and likewise a person that you follow doesn’t have to follow you back.

(And yes, “followers” sounds cult-y and egomaniacal. Nobody is really comfortable with the term, but it’s the standard one now.)

There’s some other stuff, but you get the idea. By default, when you sign up, you’re not following anyone. You have to go and follow people explicitly, and you can unfollow anyone at any time. Simple idea.

For some people, though, just unfollowing you isn’t enough – they have to tell you they’re doing it:

I am unfollowing you.

Some people actually say that. They tweet it, making sure to mention my username so that I see it, or they actually email me. I’m not sure whether they think I’ll lament the loss of a follower (um, you’re a person who informs others that they’re unfollowing; I wish you’d never followed me in the first place), or whether they just want to injure me in some way for whatever I did that made them decide to unfollow (no offence, but you’re one person in thousands – I’m going to sleep just fine tonight). It’s bizarre, isn’t it?

Since following (or subscribing) is opt-in and entirely free of charge, I don’t understand why you’d want to actually tell someone you’re unfollowing them. Some people do it in a sort of sleazy way, by mentioning my username but not actually addressing the tweet to me (e.g. “I’m unfollowing @mattgemmell because…”), which seems to fit the personality profile. You can imagine the analogous real-life situation: they say something that offends somebody within earshot, the other person complains, and their response is “I wasn’t talking to you!” Scummy.

Please, if you have an issue with anything at all that I’ve said, keep these things in mind:

  1. I almost certainly don’t care. I’m not being flippant or trying to anger you: I just… don’t. I’m already my own editor. I’ve already filtered my writing; if you saw it, it was approved by me for public release. What I mean is that you’re not going to change anything, and definitely not by being the guy who emails to tell me he’s unfollowing. If you tell me what it was that got rid of you, I’m going to do it more.

  2. I’d rather you just unfollowed or unsubscribed silently. I don’t need to know about it, and I’m certainly not going to beg you to stay, or apologise for something I said. You’re just wasting time for both of us, and making yourself seem like a worse person. Unfollowing is a single click away; just do it! Click!

I want to be clear on one thing, though: when I say “I don’t care”, I mean it in the way I just explained: that I’m not going to use your opinion to alter what I say in future. I don’t mean that it doesn’t upset me, because truthfully, sometimes it does. Never in a “maybe I was wrong” way; instead, always in a “why is this person I’ve never met being unpleasant to me?” way.

That’s probably what The Unfollower wants, of course, but I can’t help having that reaction occasionally.

The Editor

I sometimes talk about things that are (for some reason; I’m not entirely sure why) seen as controversial, like religion, homophobia, misogyny, gun ownership and so on. I’m against all of those things, by the way. You probably are too, so why are they controversial? Or perhaps you’re in favour of some of them, and you’re now going to unfollow me. But I digress.

When I talk about those topics, I get email or tweets saying things like this:

You should stick to tech topics.

Believe it or not, this one is usually presented as a friendly, constructive, genuine suggestion. If it’s via email, it’s in the part of the email where the person is being reasonable, perhaps agonisingly so. They’re probably feeling magnanimous when writing the paragraph, and smiling to themselves when they re-read it before sending. Good job, champ, they may say to themselves – that was mighty decent of you.

Except that, of course, it’s an outrageously offensive suggestion. It’s offensive for at least two reasons:

  1. It’s pretty much “don’t quit your day job”, which is always insulting.

  2. You’re requesting self-censorship for my personal Twitter account or blog.

Let me turn the “why don’t you stick to talking about <topic>?” question around: what gives you the right to decide what I want to talk about?

Here’s my position: I’m not publishing a newspaper that you’ve purchased. You walked into my house. I’m OK with you hanging around, but 100% of the rules are made by me, and 100% compliance is absolutely mandatory. You get zero say in my content. There is no Letters Page for your complaint. You can’t ask to talk to my superior, because I’m at the top of the tree – and I’m going to agree with me.

There are circumstances where you get to complain about something that someone has written, to the extent of asking them to not write about that topic again. I can’t think of one right now, but I’m sure such scenarios exist. A free, personal, opt-in, opt-out-at-any-time social media stream is not in that category. It staggers me that anyone would have the audacity to even try, yet it happens. It’s abusive.

I understand that you may think I can benefit from your input, and that my personal tweets or other writings will be all the better for whatever editing you’d advocate. I understand that. If you’re being genuinely constructive, then fire away.

But I’ve got to be honest with you: I think I’m doing just fine without your help, and I plan to continue that way. That’s why you’re reading this.

The Stockholder

A lot of the people who follow me are software developers, and they have a special insight into this particular type of Twitter troll. When you’re a software developer who has released apps, you encounter a type of customer who feels enormous entitlement just because they’ve paid for (or even downloaded) your app. It doesn’t matter if it only cost one dollar; they still get imperious and outraged. It’s a kind of sickness.

But at least they’re customers, however you might define that word. People would never get entitled, say, just because they follow you on Twitter, right? I’ll pause to wipe a tear of either hysterical amusement or desperation from my cheek. Maybe both.

I am disappointed in your tweets.

I get emails saying that sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. From a person who is disappointed in my tweets. Disappointment means that you’re sad because your expectations weren’t met. Some people don’t stop to think that, maybe, their own expectations aren’t the same as what they’re entitled to. They think that those two things are the same. Whatever they expect, they’re entitled to. There’s a whole site of stories about crazy customers like that; it’s called Not Always Right. But read the rest of this article first, because you’ll waste a week there.

These “Stockholder” people actually put on their “upset customer” voice when they tell me why they’re annoyed, or unsubscribing, or whatever. Like I’m going to negotiate, or apologise. Let me make my stance on this clear: you’re not my customer. Firstly, you’re not paying me anything; following me or reading this blog is free.

Secondly, even if you have paid me something in some other capacity, like buying an app or a license for source code, you’re still not my customer here on the blog, or on Twitter. You’re just not. Your entitlements are zero. Your expectations are your own business, and you shouldn’t confuse the two. The outcome is just going to make you unhappy.

The Dehumaniser

This is a tricky one to talk about, because you’re naturally going to think “poor little rich kid”, or whatever. I don’t mean money rich (I’m not), but rather in terms of readership (I’m not even very ‘rich’ in that regard, either, to be honest). It’s possible you’ve encountered this type of person too, of course.

People make this subconscious shift in perception once your follower-count goes over a certain number. I’m not sure what that number actually is, but it’s lower than the number of followers than I have, because the shift has already happened (for those that are susceptible to it).

It’s probably because of our trivial, celebrity-enamoured culture, but whatever the cause, the outcome is the same: people don’t see you as being a regular person anymore. You’re no longer like them, and subject to the same treatment or benefit of the doubt. I think the idea is that you’re now privileged in some way, so you have to pay a corresponding price for it.

Now, I’m not arguing with the privilege part. I am privileged. You’re reading this, for example, maybe even after seeing a link on Twitter. I know that many thousands of others will read it too. If I complain about something publicly, companies tend to get in touch in a hurry, and fix it. I get invited to get up on stages and talk to hundreds of people regularly. I get sent stuff. My name is in a lot of apps. That’s a privileged position, absolutely. I’m really grateful for those things, and as I said before, the validation means a lot to me (that’s probably a weakness of my character).

The lament “but I didn’t ask for any of this!” is a valid one, but you probably don’t care much about that. Like I said: poor little rich kid. Go on Oprah and get it over with, right?

No. Wrong. We’re all still people, no matter what our follower-count may be. There are those amongst us who seem to forget that, and thus feel justified in making hideous remarks, that they would never dream of making in person. It’s a broken psychology.

One of the worst “you’re not a person anymore” remarks I’ve ever had was last month, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings in the US. I’m not American (I’m Scottish), but I’m still angry and sad about the tragedy. Who wouldn’t be? I’m fairly liberal politically, and (particularly since I’m from the UK), I’m absolutely against gun ownership. You can think whatever you like about that, but I’d been tweeting about it and retweeting other people’s remarks on the topic. As you do.

I then got an email from a guy who began by informing me that he was unfollowing me; so far, so good – I actually appreciated that he put The Sentence first, rather than making me read through The Judgement to figure out the gist of his argument. Anyway, at one point he said that the reason I was tweeting about the Sandy Hook shooting was:

for the sake of nothing but viral self-marketing.

Let’s recap: the guy said that I was talking about the latest batch of shot-to-death American kids for self-marketing. I’m not even sure what capacity I’d be marketing myself in, on that topic. I provide neither kid-shooting nor kid-protection services. I can’t even vote in the US, and in the UK where I can vote, guns are already illegal.

I can only assume he meant that I was talking about the topic for cynical reasons; to get my tweets favourited or retweeted, in order to expand my vast online empire and readership using the currency of murdered kids. If he reads this article, he’ll no doubt think I’m doing it again. What a horrible person he thinks I am.

Because I don’t get to just talk about the stuff that you’re talking about. I don’t get to do that because, after my follower-count reached a certain number, I became Matt Gemmell Incorporated, and my tweets are now written by my marketing department. Which, of course, is nonsense (if I had a marketing department, they’d probably censor about half my tweets anyway).

Sometimes, people are successful at something, even if it’s something as silly as writing short messages on the internet. In some of those cases, the people even wanted to be successful at that thing. The rest of the time, it was a side-effect rather than a goal. I didn’t put myself up in front of anyone, like a D-list celebrity going on Survivor, or someone auditioning for The X-Factor. I didn’t “ask for it”. I just started a blog, and opened a Twitter account. I don’t even advertise this blog anywhere. I have no Google Adwords account, or anything else like that. Oh, and I was invited to every conference I’ve ever spoken at.

To the Dehumanisers, I’d say this: you’re the one who put me in this position. Sure, it was me who wrote the thing you initially liked – whether it was that article on such-and-such, or that chunk of source code called MGWhatever that you used in your app – but it was you who decided to follow me. Or to subscribe to this blog. Or even just to click the link on Twitter that some of your friends shared. That part was you.

I didn’t bring you here; I just looked out the window and there you were, peering in. I didn’t click the Block button, which is Twitter’s version of getting a restraining order. I was fine with it.

People, please

Every person on Twitter is a person, no matter what their follower count is. If it’s a company account, maybe you’re bound ‘only’ by the rules of politeness, sanity and the law – otherwise, go for it and ask them where the hell your software serial number is, or why your cellphone service is down (that’s one of the best bits about social media these days – rapid, personal customer support from companies clever enough to capitalise on it).

If, however, it’s a personal account, you have no rights at all. Well, maybe two: you can follow, and you can unfollow. That’s it. You don’t get editorial input, and you sure as hell don’t get to make objectively ludicrous and dehumanising accusations like the aforementioned guy did.

On social media, I am not a business. I’m just me, just like you are just you. I’m a guy in his 30s with some grey hairs, a wife, and some thoughts I’d like to share periodically. You can read them if you want, but you need to remember the basic context of our shared humanity. I get nervous before I talk at conferences. I miss my wife when we’re apart. At about 9:30 in the morning, after my first coffee, don’t knock on my door because I’ll be in the bathroom. With my iPhone, of course. Human.

Yes, I do have a business, and it’s your choice if you don’t want to do business with me on account of something I wrote (or because I’m an atheist, or pro-choice, or a feminist, or anti-gun, or because I swear quite a lot). That’s your right, and I wouldn’t take it from you. I’d perhaps advise you to reflect on the fact that you made a decision on that basis, but I can’t force you to do that.

In a personal capacity, though, let’s have a bit of humanity. Tone down the entitlement, and the editing, and the hurt-you-back “I’m unfollowing”. It’s unnecessary, and it only reflects poorly on you.

I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter. If you’re already following me, that’s where you’ll find the unfollow button, too.