If someone follows you in Twitter, the polite thing to do is reciprocate, right? Well, maybe so, but I think it needs a little more thought than that. Here is a list of the steps I take when someone follows me.
Incidentally, the same techniques, with a bit of adjustment, work for any social network situation where people can become your "friend".
#1: What's in it for you?
As a general rule, I think about what I hope to gain from the relationship. Relationship? Yes: as soon as you follow someone, or they follow you, you have a relationship of sorts, whenever you want it or not and regardless of whether you pay it any attention. The only way to avoid it whilst remaining within your Twitter network is by blocking that person.
Now, my primary reason for wanting to link with anyone online is my interest in educational ICT. I have a secondary interest, that of business, because I run my own business. I am also interested in writing and journalism. And that is pretty much it. Unless you have the most amazing powers of persuasion, chances are that I won't be your friend or follower unless you come into one of those categories. Yes, there are the odd exceptions, such as connecting with someone who likes the same sort of music as I do, but even there it is almost certainly the case that I already "know" or know of the person through one of the other spheres I have just mentioned.
This is very much linked to my main website, of course. The focus of that is ICT in education. There may be a great, newsworthy article just begging to be written -- but if it's not to do with ICT in education it probably won't be me writing it, and if I do, it won't be on that website.
What it comes down to is this: I don't want to populate my Twitter network with people who have little or nothing to do with my main interests, because that will only make it more likely that I will miss something important from the people who do. That's why I don't agree with the people who advocate following as many people as possible: I think one needs to be more discriminating than that.
In summary: decide in advance what sort of people you're happy to follow, ie the ones from whom you're likely to benefit from following.
That's the backdrop against which I take all of the steps that follow.
#2: Check the tweets
When I receive an email to say that someone is following me, I click on the link to their Twitter page. I then check look to see what they've been tweeting about. If it's mainly technology or education-related, that's a good start.
If it's about what they had for breakfast over the last week and a half, that's a real turn-off but not a "deal-breaker".
If their tweets are all along the lines of "Great investment opportunity: make $5,000 a week for 5 minutes' work", I will block them straight away.
If they haven't tweeted yet, go straight to #5.
#3: Check the numbers
The next thing I do is check how many people they follow, and who follow them. If they have 3 followers and are following 5,000 people, I probably won't follow them. I would just assume that they're a sort of Twitter groupie and are following everyone in sight. I like to think that they want to follow me because they like what I write about, not to boost their numbers. But I won't dismiss them just yet -- you can't say I'm not fair!
If they have 5,000 followers and follow nobody, that seems on the face of it a bit egotistical and a bit pointless. But I still won't dismiss them just yet!
If they follow 5,000 people and have 5,000 followers, they're probably some sort of spammer. I almost certainly won't follow them. In fact, I may even block them, because this sort of thing usually goes hand-in-hand with the third type of tweet mentioned in #2.
#4: Who's who?
I like to check who the followers are, and who the followees (is there such a word?) are. If I recognise some names I respect, I'm usually happy to set aside my doubts for a while.
#5: Check their profile
If it is blank, or says that they're a professional goof-offer, or that they manage a real estate company and enjoy engineering in their spare time, I won't follow them. I have nothing against real estate workers or engineers, but I don't see what any of that has to do with me. See #1.
#6: Check if they have a website
If they don't, I almost certainly won't follow them unless I'm reasonably satisfied according to points 2, 3, 4 and 5. The existence of a website tells me they're (probably) serious. It also gives me a chance to find out more about them.
#7: Look at their website URL
If they have a website, but it's URL is www.goofingoff.com, I won't follow them. If it's some generic website that I can't check, like www.blogger.com, I won't follow them.
#8: Check their website
If we've made it this far, I'll check their website. In other words, unless I have been totally put off according to some of the earlier criteria, and if they do have a genuine-sounding website, I will look at it. If it's interesting then I will probably bookmark it or subscribe to its RSS feed even if I don't wish to follow them in Twitter (just yet).
#9: Check their profile or About page
If they have a website, I'll try and find out a little more about them there as well. Bottom line: are they who they purport to be, or some sort of scam artist or pornbroker (no, that wasn't a spelling error)?
#10: Home at last!
If all the previous nine hoops have been jumped through satisfactorily, I click on "Follow"!
I suppose all of that makes me sound like some sort of prima donna or intellectual snob, or as if I'm paranoid. I'm not, though I suppose you'll have to take my word for it. But if you think about it, these 10 steps are not a bad blueprint for how students should evaluate requests for online friendship. And although it all seems like a long and drawn out process, the whole thing from start to finish takes me 5 minutes at the outside. The reason I often keep people waiting for a response when they follow me is not that the process takes a long time, but because I usually end up trying to process lots of "follows" in one go, a couple of months after receiving the notification. (But I'm trying to improve in that department!)
I'd be interested to hear what you think of these steps, and how you respond when people follow you in Twitter or other social networks.