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Hierarchies, cliques and Twitter rules

December 31, 2012


Recently I read in a tweet, about a blog, blogthat there are ‘no hierarchies on SoMe’ (social media) and Twitter in particular.  Instinctively I didn’t agree with the statement, it just didn’t feel right. I thought it was at the very least misleading, albeit it was most certainly made in good faith.

I considered this for a week or two before writing this blog, I engaged in conversation with others on Twitter – perhaps by doing so I would clarify my own think related to the topic of hierarchy versus clique.

hierarchyIf hierarchy is a system of ranking one person (group) above another ( then followers on Twitter is a new convention in hierarchy – more followers equals more (nominal) influence if not actual power: you are effectively  ranked above a person with less followers.

However this is a very basic way of measuring influence. Metrics e.g. Klout scores, measure your level of engagement such as RTs, rather than simply the number of followers, number of followers can give a superficial impression of influence.  Of course measuring RTs can be a reinforcer of traditional heirarchy as the in-people get RT’d simply because they are the in-people, not that their contribution is more insightful than others: think back to some conferences you been at, who gets RT’d more often, is their contribution more deeply meaningful than others?

So caution must be exercised in interpreting follower/following figures in isolation.  We are becoming more sophisticated in measuring influence and there are tools to do this, if one is so inclined.

A similar interpretation could be placed on those who have significantly more followers than they follow – the greater the gulf the greater the hierarchy at play.


Taking a leaf from Phil Jewitt’s approach I ask a few people who I follow on Twitter, who I also respect for the content of what they say and (most importantly) their clear willingness to engage with others.  What was of relevance and interest to me was the willingness of my ‘wise-five’ to engage, not the number of followers they have.  For the researchers among you I’d consider this under the umbrella of convenience sampling as I used Direct Messaging on Twitter, which requires that I’m following and being followed by those I asked.

The simple question I asked was: “Do you have any rules re Twitter follows.  I’m writing my blog from hierarchy perspective”

– the answers started to came back within 3 minutes:

  • (3 mins) I only follow those who I feel may have something to say of value, those I’m unsure of, check out their previous history – give them the benefit of the doubt for a while.  Block those who follow me with dubious tag lines (x2 DMs to convey the message).
  • Rules(4 mins) I don’t tend to have any hard and fast rules.  I tend to follow people who provide content I find interesting/useful ..
  • (19 mins) I am random. Genuinely. I follow those those I find interesting (for many reasons) and those I’m coaching on SoMe.  I don’t worry about who follows me unless they are offensive (never happened) or weird (has happened once) when I blocked   I think if I want to be me and out there transparency and sharing are the name of the game. I can’t expect people to net race with me if I don’t interact with them! (Clearly this took several DM’s to convey).
  • (43 mins) I follow those that look interesting. No real rules.
  • (3hours) Not specifically just an interest in their tweets or background.

The timings, noted in brackets, are relatively unimportant other than to illustrate the point of engagement with those I follow and their engagement with me (and many others).  This is one positive aspects of Twitter – the power to influence and be influenced by people who may live far away, very quickly; people who often I’ve never met (three out of five of the ‘wise-five’ I’ve never met).


TwitterIt is abundantly clear that social media in general allows you to by-pass the traditional hierarchies.  Within my area of interest (healthcare) I see chief executives and national leaders communicating directly with those who are closer to the direct care delivery aspect of services.  Those who traditionally would be considered as more junior in an organisation have a direct channel of communication to their chief executive or to specific directors in the organisation – a facility not always welcomed by those middle graders who ‘don’t do’ social media.

A more extended email conversation with one of my ‘wise five’ also noted the phenomenon whereby staff within an organisation can build an online reputation that may exceeds that of their CEO, that social media can support a more casual (less formal) engagement across organisations and traditional hierarchical structures.

While undoubtedly true and evident on a daily basis another hierarchy is still firmly rooted and re-enforced in social media, a hierarchy that in the past was more hidden, now is played out for everyone to see – an alternative explanation for this phenomenon is the old fashion clique.

public conversationThe in-people now have public conversations for all to see, people in positions of influence therefore should think carefully about how as well as who they engage with and the potential to irritate others by cliquish behaviour, in addition to impacting on others self-worth.

It can appear that they, by and large, perpetuate their perceived place in the hierarchy (or clique) by only following those they consider their equals; those at the same level within their organisation(s), those they consider their peers nationally or even those who create a recognised profile by championing a cause – a new hierarchy is therefore perpetuated, developed and re-enforced by followership, or more correctly ‘non-followership’.  Freud considered that human behaviour is largely shaped by sub-conscious, non-rational drives which are then rationalise and justified in terms of logic and reason.  In effect reciprocity between the ‘influencers’ means that some have to follower specific others to remain within the higher circles of influence, even if they don’t consciously recognise their choices.

Of course the balance to this perspective recognises the need of these ‘popular’ individuals to self manage their ability for real engagement with too many people i.e. overload, although there are tools that can also support filtering chatter from engagement, if they so desire.

My rules

Writing this blog encouraged me to consider my own rules of engagement on Twitter – why do I follow some and not others?

  • I follow back when someone has completed info on their bio that tells me a little about them and importantly I should actively engage in their conversations
  • I follow back people I know, even in the absence of an avatar and/or bio
  • I dislike ‘eggs’ and usually, in the absence of an avatar, I only follow if I know the person, or their bio suggests they will have things of relevance/interest to share in the future
  • I unfollow people who don’t follow back – there are a few exceptions based on direct interest in what they are saying, or organisation that are of interest to me (that sort of applies to news channels as well)
  • I unfollow clutter – over tweeting or tweeting things that I am not interested in
  • I frequently unfollow when I get a DM asking me to sign up to their FB page or buy something that will get you something else free …. bored, bored, bored.
  • I sometimes unfollow dormant accounts

So what?

A question I often like to ask myself when writing is ‘so what’?  What was the point of writing this blog?  I’ve tried to summarise my ‘so what?’ below:

  • As we move into 2013, perhaps by reading this blog you’ll consider your own rules regarding following, not following and unfollowing.  Perhaps we will all consider the impact our decisions have on others.
  • I’ve laid out my rules – I don’t know if they are right or not, I’m open to be influenced are they are too complicated or too superficial?
  • Have you considered the reasons why you follow one person but not another, what impact that may have on them?  Perhaps you could start with my rules then adapt, change or reject them to what works for you? But at least you’ll do it from a place of understanding yourself a little better.
  • Is it simply your high school clique now being played out in public?
  • Is it your internal hierarchy building a barrier around your importance?

Influencing and being influenced

Too many questions? – perhaps take a few minutes to reflect ‘why’ – why are you on twitter (social media) is it to impart information, is it to influence others to your way of thinking or is it about sharing and perhaps having others influence your thinking?

2013Whatever it is, I hope you have a great sharing 2013.

Additionally I’d like to say thanks to two of my ‘wise-five’ who not only responded to DMs but also read and commented (via email) on an earlier draft of this blog, input which caused me to adapt and add to some of my original thoughts.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. ermintrude2 permalink
    December 31, 2012 8:18 am

    Thanks for writing your thoughts on this. I have thought long and hard about the relationship and changes between hierarchies as they exist in ‘life’ and where social media type changes fit in.

    I’m of the thought that hierarchies exist because a part of human nature is to grade things – including people – and while we can’t detach influence online from influence ‘offline’, structures are a lot more fluid though and as you say, there’s more of a possibility to crack through some of the clinks of light that offline hierarchies can’t challenge.

    However a CEO who listens learns so much more than one who remains enclosed in their bubble of deference but I do think we can become preoccupied by ‘tweeting ‘leaders”.

    For me as a social care professional the most valuable learning has come from those who might use social care services but for whom in day to day life, might not be able to give feedback so honestly because unfortunately in health and social care we, in service delivery, deal constantly with power dynamics with those who have high care needs .

    As with all hierarchies, the more we are aware of our own position, privilege and voice, the more we can learn from those above but mostly from those who might be considered ‘below’ who can find ways to voice ideas, experiences and reflections that can be learnt from.

    I may need to think on this more but appreciate the post. Incidentally your guide regarding followers is pretty much identical to what I do regarding followers etc!

    • January 1, 2013 1:31 pm

      Firstly, Happy New Year

      Thank you for your comments and observations – I agree that humans have a tendency (?need) to grade and rank things in order to make sense of them. I guess I want to consider the ‘why’ of the grading, is it self appointed or do we inadvertently appoint them, if so based on what and what maintains that position. As you say, it is without doubt a strength when a CEO can and does listen to feedback rather than just broadcast messages.

      I think the key message I was trying to convey was in your statement “As with all hierarchies, the more we are aware of our own position, privilege and voice” – if we are self aware, we may take greater care in how we exercise the privileged position we hold.

  2. December 31, 2012 9:39 am

    Interesting points you raise. I agree of course there is a twitter hierarchy but its a tool to enable authentic conversations and connections across and beyond hierarchies and systems that must in the main be helpful. I think the great thing for me around twitter is the connection with others. With communities of interest, with local communities, with people beyond these lands too. I learn so much and when I have been ill and isolated twitter has connected me to those who could inform me or cheer me up…..and sometimes annoy me too! Always very invigorating! I believe social media can be a tool to improve health and social care. We just need to be brave enough to use it.
    As for unfollowing those who don’t follow back….why? I’m not sure I see the need for that. It’s their choice and that seems ok to me!

    • January 1, 2013 1:32 pm

      Happy New Year Audrey, thank you for reading and commenting on the blog, I really appreciate the feedback.

      I think my answer to you final point is encapsulated in second sentence “to enable authentic conversations and connections” . A one sided flow of information may, in some circumstances, be helpful and indeed interesting but its not dialogue or conversation. I could go to a conference, read a book or a journal if I wanted the broadcast observations of others. I think in this regard we agree in part, it’s just I’m obviously somewhat less forgiving than you 🙂 – perhaps I’m the loser? I don’t know, but I read loads of ‘broadcast’ info for my work, to me Twitter is about two way sharing.

      Hope this answers the question – please feel free to disagree.

  3. December 31, 2012 9:58 am

    I really liked this blog Derek. As someone who is perhaps less calculating than you I just sort of blunder through managing my social media relationships. I would like to think I apply the same principles to my online behaviour as my offline. I genuinely don’t think too hard about rules on Twitter.
    I do apply rules, however, on Linkedin. I’ve never tried to think through why this might be different. My rule for LinkedIn is if I’ve never met, emailed or spoken with you, unless we have an exceptional connection in terms of interests (nurse informatics usually) I won’t connect.
    I’m not sure why I’m potentially so ill- disciplined in one space and rigorous in another. But I do think my Twitter profile is most like me as a person.
    Your blog has been making me look for theories that might underpin your thinking. I have struggled although I feel confident they exist somewhere. They are probably in sociology theory (not my strongpoint). The bit I think that might apply is ‘social status’ which I suspect you can’t remove on Twitter if you are to remain connected as it appears that social status is at least partly per determined by your job (doctor, teacher, nurse etc). I don’t know if this is right or naive (I usually am) but the basics are here:
    Interesting and thought provoking blog.
    Thank you!

    • January 1, 2013 1:34 pm

      Happy New Year Anne

      Thanks for your thoughts/comments.

      I hadn’t thought of my ‘rules’ re other social media channels, I focused on Twitter as it seems the most fluid of all media. I’m less disciplined than you on LinkedIn, probably because I don’t use it very often and therefore am less aware of any of its benefits.

      I’m not sure that social status is conveyed as readily by job title as perhaps it is in the physical environment. There are occasions within job roles where the notional position of the individual probably does convey a sense of status e.g. people want to follow the CNO simply because they are the CNO, not that they are necessarily interesting or engaging (although they may be). That opens up an interesting channel of discussion around ‘followership’.

      Perhaps a topic for another blog?

  4. chris servante permalink
    December 31, 2012 10:29 am

    I thought the whole point of twitter was that everyone was on an even playing field … there are many who ‘blelieve’ in their own twitter hierarchy and that for some reason they are above so many others, It is obvious which ones they are .. they go out of the way to ignore those they deem beneath them . Have always been baffled by how some do get so many followers yet their interaction with those followers is actually horrendously minimal. Interaction , debate. whatever one uses social media for .. if used correctly could solve so much, but still too many prefer to use it as a nagging post. In time it will evolve into the most useful discussion tool available !

    • January 1, 2013 1:35 pm

      Thanks Chris and Happy New Year.

      I agree with your observations on engagement with followers – however whether we like it or not the hierarchy, despite the lack of engagement exists and therefore perpetuates a pre-existing or a newly emerging hierarchy. I hope the blog may make people consider their engagement levels, that said I’m fairly sure none of the people you allude to will ever read it.

      Thanks for posting your thoughts.

  5. December 31, 2012 11:57 am

    Thank you for this blog Derek – really thought provoking. It made me reflect on the difference between influence and popularity. Popularity could possibly be measured in number of followers. But influence is more about your levels of interaction and they extent to which. Someone may be popular because they are famous or have a powerful position but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are influential – particularly if they don’t engage with others. Cliques and in-conversations might be a way of displaying one’s popularity.

    A quick google of the definition of influence is a ‘compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others’ whereas popularity is about favour and approval by others. I guess we should avoid getting the two mixed up – sharing views, ideas and reciprocal influence is what I find most engaging about social media.

    ps. unlike Anne, I accept any invitation to accept connections on Linkedin without even checking but am a bit more thoughtful when it comes to Twitter…

    • January 1, 2013 1:40 pm

      Thank you Victoria, a Happy New Year to you.

      I partially agree with what you say. Influence and popularity are different to an extent, however popularity can also create influence, hence political parties parade celebrities to endorse their cause. The recent nonsense on Twitter re the ‘peer’ demonstrates the difference and yet similarity – as certain popular media figures perpetuated the untruth, it influenced the thinking of others who then retold the untruth. The influence was measurably by popularity, which in turned influenced the level of compensation – the influence was down to more/better info, it was simply more people heard the untruth.

      With regard to “sharing views, ideas and reciprocal influence” I completely agree, it is my reason d’être for being on Twitter – I want to influence and be influenced, I want to share thoughts and ideas and I want them to be shared with me.

      I also share your approach re LinkedIn, probably because I don’t understand it or value it.


  6. Kim Barron permalink
    January 4, 2013 12:00 am

    As a 20 something I grew up in a time where SoMe was introduced and have seen the development of various sites and the development of some psychology.
    I have also seen the psychological impact when some rules are broken – these rules mirror a persons rules for living (think cbt- schema theory). It is no longer a rarity to discuss the impact of SoMe during a mental health consultation.
    I feel it is impossible to avoid humans using SoMe like humans – along with all our human frailties and failings – for some this is the need to develop and belong cliches.
    I think SoMe can enable us to develop fantastic links we otherwise couldn’t – if we want to. And if they want too 🙂

  7. January 4, 2013 12:52 am

    Thank you for your comments – I think your right: humans will be humans, my hope in writing the blog is that they would consider their impact on others when engaging with SoMe. By increasing our self awareness we can understand how our actions affect others and how we are viewed.

  8. January 6, 2013 7:50 pm

    Great thought provoking post Derek. I’m liking this ‘wise five’ straw poll idea as a way to kick a blog idea off. Two comments from me;

    Not sure I totally agree with you on the unfollowing if people don’t follow you back point or following just because you know someone. I tend to use lists in these situations; I may not choose to follow someone I know or have their tweets appearing in my timeline if perhaps the majority of what they talk about may not be if interest to me, however I may choose to have a look at their content on occasion via a list. This reduces need to search for them too.

    On the point of popularity v influence, Being a nice person usually means you become popular, which is fine, but we’ve heard the saying that nice guys don’t always win. (I know there is more to life than winning and especially soc med conversation, however most of us aren’t on socmed solely for inane chat, we are here for a reason, wanting knowledge etc so we have to give something in return. I term this as ‘being effective’ and generally means that you have the ability to influence and get stuff sorted…and generally we like it whan we can do that and help others to sort their stuff too.

    And there’s the balance. I think if you can be ‘nice’ and ‘effective’ then that for me is a good place to be on socmed, and generally in life.

    Took me over 20 years to suss that out. Here’s a link how the penny dropped for me.

    Thanks for this post, I can see it took some time to prepare and put down in a format that is engaging and interesting.

    • January 6, 2013 11:07 pm

      Thanks Phil – I think you are probably right about the follow/unfollow approach in that it’s somewhat limiting and I accept that, in fact I may miss some interesting discussion/info, but I’m willing to take the risk. I get loads of stuff sent to me every day, policies, consultations, directives etc I want my social media to engage with me, to be willing to share in discussion or opinion forming. I do use lists already, but I use them for tweeters that I’m specifically interested in following. I like the ‘being effective’ approach, its considered and its two way, that is what I think I contribute to and get out of social media – realistically we’re not that far apart on the outcomes we seek, perhaps only deviating a little on how to get there. Have a great week, thanks for the comment, much appreciated. Derek


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