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A Twitter Experiment (and What I Learned About Conversation)


A few months ago, I started a grand new experiment on Twitter. I didn’t announce it or anything – I just did it to see what would happen. The results aren’t something I can put into a chart or even tell you about in terms of percentages or click rates or anything like that. But what I’ve learned is, I think, pretty interesting.

I’ve always been huge fan of auto-following people. And by “huge fan” I mean that it makes me throw up in my mouth a little. I get it that some people are just in it for the numbers. Personally, that doesn’t make any more sense to me than cold-calling, but whatever blows your skirt, people. Still, my personal Twitter following method wasn’t really introducing me to new people. I was only following people who I actually knew, either because I was a long-time blog reader or because I had met them in person. I would find myself on Twitter, at times, with no one really to talk to, and that wasn’t good either.

And so, I began my experiment. I decided that I was going to follow back every person who followed me, as long as they were actually engaging with others. Whenever someone followed me, I manually checked their stream. Unless they ONLY had links or spammy tweets, I clicked the “follow” button. I created a few private lists to keep my personal friends separate from the main list of followers and I started tweeting.

Any monkey with half a brain can guess that I met some cool people in doing this. I found some new bloggers to enjoy, made some new friends, and gained some new fans. That’s not the interesting result from my Twitter experiment that I want to share with you.

The interesting thing I learned is that we’re not talking enough.

Part of the reason I wanted to follow back more people was to actually start talking to tweeters who found me interesting in some way. I made it my goal to reply to tweets from three people I never met before (either online or in real life) every day, to try to build some new online friendships. To be honest, I find this to be a harder task than you might think, simply because people are so focused on retweeting others’ links and replying to other people that they forget to actually say anything that I can actually reply to.

I’m going to take a moment right now, in the middle of writing this blog post, to look at the list of people I’m following. At this very second, of the last 20 tweets…

  • Replies to Other People – 5
  • Links to Their Own Blog Posts via Twitterfeed/Old Post/etc – 8
  • Links to Blog Posts from Other Bloggers – 6
  • Actual Thoughts, Comments, Questions, etc – 1

The results are comparable throughout the day, I’ve noticed. There is typically only one conversational tweet for every 20 to 40 link-based or reply posts.

I’m not saying that we should stop replying to other people. I’m not saying that we should stop retweeting other people’s links. Heck, I’m not even saying we should stop tweeting our own links. You should be proud of what you write, and I advocate linking to every blog post at least once.

But if you aren’t actually saying anything, why are you surprised when no one says anything to you?

The reason why Twitter gurus like Scott Stratten tell people to spend most of their time replying to others on Twitter is because it makes your followers feel good. I certainly feel appreciated when someone send an @ reply to a random comment I’ve made! It shows that you are listening, that you actually care.

I have a hard time with it sometimes, though, because people I like aren’t really saying much. They’re replying to their own followers, which is great, but I usually don’t know what’s going on with that conversation and at times it feels rude to jump in. Or they’re tweeting links – which is also cool, but I don’t like to retweet EVERYTHING someone I like sends down the pipeline, and if I have a comment, I like to say it directly on the site, not on Twitter.

So I just don’t say anything.

I want to engage! I do! But if you aren’t saying anything, if you’re so focused on engaging with others that you never have a unique comment or even ask a question, you’re probably never going to hear from me. And that stinks, because we probably could have had some cool conversations.

Think about your last 100 tweets, and then consider taking this challenge for your next 100 tweets: Make about 70 of them replies to other people or links to other people’s blogs. Make about 10 of them links to your own blog. But – and this is the important part – make about 20 of them your own thoughts.

I know that the gurus are preaching that we need to stop talking about ourselves so much, but I don’t think anyone is telling you not to talk about yourself at all. Scott, for example, was preaching at BlogWorld that we need to reply to others about 75% of the time – but he didn’t say 100%. Look at his Twitter stream – he replies to a lot of people, but he says a lot too.

I want to get to know what you’re thinking about. I want to know about your day. I want to understand your personality better so I know whether or not the links you’re tweeting are likely posts I want to read. I want to comment on things you say or answer your questions. Don’t make it so hard!


  • Carole

    GREAT ARTICLE and IDEA! HI If you promise not to laugh at me I will confess something here and now. I do not understand twitter to the extent I should considering in our lives my husband and I have 6 twitter accounts – 1 is personal the other 5 tie into 5 entrepreneurial businesses. The part I don’t want you to laugh at (a lot) is that because I do not understand how to FF and RT and all that stuff most of my tweets are written by me – I own them I write them and those I don’t write link back to the 5 corresponding blogs I write. This weekend is the weekend I have set aside to understand Twitter more, I do use TweetDeck but I am changing to Hootsuite. I do pre-write some posts but I also put others up during the day. My followers are small I am just learning how to find people – I love that you did what you did – I know people who have high numbers and all they do is post other peoples sayings all day – now that makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little – thanks.

    • Alli

      You know, you are the second person who recently told me that you don’t know the basics of Twitter – I think that means I should do a post on it! When I first started, I was lucky enough to have a friend explain it all to me.

      • John

        This is really interesting Alli! Would you be willing to help make a slightly more formal experiment out of this:

        “Think about your last 100 tweets, and then consider taking this challenge for your next 100 tweets: Make about 70 of them replies to other people or links to other peopleโ€™s blogs. Make about 10 of them links to your own blog. But โ€“ and this is the important part โ€“ make about 20 of them your own thoughts.”

        We at the World Mind Network would like to try it. I think the implications go way beyond just how people tweet, to some important lessons around how people connect in the first place, and how the world would be better if we not only could appreciate others more, but could appreciate our OWN worth more.

  • Amanda O'Brien

    I love your experiment. I have even been trying that myself. I want to get to know people on twitter better, make better relationships with people I might meet at upcoming events and conferences but you are right… People are ‘saying’ much. Twitter has turned into a great news source but it isn’t as good for getting to know people.

    I will say Twitter has been great for getting to know people locally. I live in Portland, Maine and Mainers seem to always follow back Mainers. They also are doing more of the posting about their activities, thoughts and conversations. Twitter pro-users seem to be the harder conversations to jump in on. So if you want relationships, maybe try local people? Or you can try anyone from Maine, they are pretty friendly ๐Ÿ™‚

    Good luck and thanks for the honest post,

    • Alli

      I think niche makes a definite difference. Most of the people following me (and whom I follow) are bloggers and social media people, which definitely means more links and a higher volume of Tweets in general. I think you’re right about local people being more excited to build relationships. I think it’s just neat to connect on a world-wide platform and learn that they live down the street.

    • Jeffrey Friend

      Amanda, the one thing I remember about my trip to Calais, Maine…Lobsta’ Rolls!!!

  • Farnoosh

    Hey Alli, I like this new experiment. I have been thinking of ways to MEET new people and not necessarily those who follow me although I am grateful and if the interest is mutual, I follow back. I usually like to follow those who start a conversation or with whom I engage – same mindset as you….So I am going to focus harder on my next 100 Tweets and include some new and interesting people to see if they will also return the interest. THANK YOU for the food for thought and is it too late to wish you a happy new year 2011? :)!

  • Jeffrey Friend

    Awesome post Alli, and great idea for an experiment! I have auto-followed people back from the beginning, and that is because I believe in the reciprocal effect. There are two problems with it though (well, 2 big problems at least) – 1) The DM spam can become ridiculous 2) I don’t realize when they follow me / I follow back, so there is a good chance I won’t communicate with them unless they communicate with me (because otherwise I didn’t know they existed). #2 is the biggest problem and I’m trying to figure that out.

    I completely agree on the lack of personal tweets that go out. I try to keep a good balance personal tweets, RTs and sharing of different links that my followers like to hear about. It’s a great reminder that my personal tweets could be higher though. Thank you again for this post!

  • Mel Kettle

    Great post. One of things I love most about twitter is that I have met so many great new people through it. I also look at everyone who follows me and follow back if they engage. Like you, if all they do is RT or – worse – tweet incessant quotes – I ignore. And I try and engage with them. It amazes me how few people actually reply when you ask them a question on twitter or try to engage – surely that is the point?

    I have a goal in 2011 to meet 1 new twitter person a week. I met a lot of new people via twitter in 2010 and it has just enhanced my life in so many ways, from a business and a personal perspective.

  • Jamie

    It would be great if you could put together a quick tips blog for those of us who are Twitter-challenged to learn about how to interact more with others. My guess is that some of the reason that so few people use Twitter as a proper two-way communication tool is that they just don’t understand its features. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this post. It makes me feel like using Twitter is “doable.” So often is seems like things I send through Twitter go into a black hole. Your observations make me see why.

  • WallyBrown

    Good posts Allison. I didn’t get Twitter for a long time, and when I did finally try it I started following SEO guys and marketers…….BORING. I got rid of all of those guys and found some of the best Twitter comedians around, and that’s the ticket.
    I think Twitter is awesome when you use it like the Rob Delaney’s of the world, because it’s not a bunch of lame links to a lame post or a self-promoting piece of totally boring content.
    I don’t think Twitter should be about tweeting what you ate today, your boring links or saying “it’s complicated”….Twitter can be so much more!

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