It happens sooner or later: Twitter notifies you that someone “is now following you on Twitter,” but you have no idea who they are. Your first followers were the friends you told, and maybe a handful of services you followed which automatically followed you back. But eventually, you are followed by a complete stranger. Who are they? What do they want? Are you being stalked?
It can feel especially odd if you are used to the enclosed walls of Facebook, where friendship is always mutual. But remember, Twitter is not simply Facebook status updates, without Facebook. By default, everything you tweet is public, and anyone can follow you. (If this bothers you, go to your Twitter Settings and select “Protect my updates”. But think twice before you do so, because you will be missing out on the opportunity to meet interesting people you don’t know.)
So how did they find you? Here are a few different ways:
They looked in the public timeline
A “timeline” is a series of Twitter updates (that is, “tweets”) shown in reverse chronological order (the most recent on top). What you usually see on Twitter is a personalized timeline of the people you follow. But did you know there is also a public timeline showing all unprotected tweets? (That may make you think twice about what you tweet!)
The public timeline is no longer featured on Twitter’s web interface, but it is still easy to find. With many Twitter clients, it is just a click away. Whatever you tweet goes there. Of course, it is quickly left in the dust by the tweets of thousands of other people, but someone may happen to see what just wrote, and decide to follow you, for two different reasons:
- They are interested in you. Or,
- They want you to be interested in them and follow them back.
The second is a very common means of self-promotion on Twitter. Self-promotion may feel cheap but is it necessarily wrong? Remember, you have no obligation to follow anyone back just because they follow you.
They searched for keywords
You may have just tweeted about the problems you are having with ants in your house. Suddenly, you are followed by a firm that does insect extermination! How did that happen? They probably entered “ant problem” into Twitter Search to find potential clients.
It may be annoying, but there is nothing nefarious about this. I even tried doing a little of this myself. Why? I thought that by finding people who were brand-new to Twitter, I might share tips with them, like this blog post. Sure, it was self-promotion, but I genuinely want to help people.
I quit doing that once I remembered that for someone new to Twitter, being followed by a stranger can feel creepy. But I wanted to illustrate that being followed because of a specific word you typed into Twitter is not necessarily wrong. You may discover something helpful. …Or not, in which case you can safely ignore them.
Someone mentioned you
When someone mentions another person by their Twitter name (with an at-sign, like @jonmreid), it becomes a link to the other person’s profile, showing all of their tweets. If you follow someone because you are interested in them, and they mention someone else in an interesting tweet, there’s a decent chance that the other person will also be interesting to you. This is how Twitter is like a cocktail party, and it’s a great way to discover other people.
So if someone mentions you, some of their followers may try following you. Some may be genuinely interested, curious to learn more about you. Some may be doing that self-promotion thing, hoping you will follow back.
Someone replied to you
Replies — where you begin by clicking the reply arrow on someone else’s tweet — used to function in the same cocktail-party fashion. More so, in fact, because replies are the most natural way to carry on conversations in Twitter. Unfortunately, the personalized timeline of the people you follow no longer shows replies to people you don’t follow. But they can still be seen through other means. Using me as an example,
- My Twitter profile shows all of my tweets, including my replies.
- Tweetree provides an expanded view of anyone’s profile. In particular, it shows the context of replies, so you can see who (and specifically, what) I am replying to.
- Twitoaster shows who is replying to me, and what they said.
The links above use me as an example to show how the browser location includes the person’s Twitter name. Replace my name with someone you know, and you will discover other people. And maybe others are discovering you in this fashion.
Don’t worry, be happy
So the next time you are followed by a stranger (on Twitter), don’t worry. Again, either they are interested in you, or they want you to be interested in them. The first is nice, but either is fine. (Except for spammers. I’ll address them separately.) Relax, and enjoy the strange world of Twitter!
Twitter Practical How-to’s series:
- Twitter Symbols: What Do @, d, RT, # Mean?
- Use a Twitter Client
- What to Tweet (and What Not To)
- Who to Follow on Twitter
- I’m Being Followed on Twitter!
More Twitter resources: