On following followers, with help from Miss Manners

The past few days, thanks to blog- and Twitterbased discussions related to #followamuseum (which Day is, by the way, today), there’s been some interesting conversation around the question of whether museums ought to follow back those who follow them on Twitter, or whether doing so constitutes a kind of creepy stalking by the museum.

My practice as an institutional social media manager has generally been not to follow our followers, mostly for reasons of convenience along with a little twist of “gut says not to” thrown in.

But when confronted with the direct question and in getting caught up on the positive possibilities, my subsequent reaction was that museums following their followers is a great idea: after all, visitors are the life-blood of any institution and any opportunity to show that we appreciate and think highly of them should be seized without delay!

Then I heard again from those who thought it isn’t such a hot idea, and figured I should do some examination of the whole notion.

And upon this more measured reflection, taking into account comments in the various discussions above and weighing arguments on both sides of the equation, I’ve reached the conclusion that as a general rule, museums ought not make a habit of immediately following those who follow them.

Why ever not?  Aren’t these the people we want to build a relationship with?

The objection is, your honor, that doing so assumes a relationship not yet in evidence.

Pros and Cons

Let’s turn the question around a bit. In thinking about my own life on Twitter as an individual, how would I respond if an institution (say Honda, my local paper, or a museum) were to follow me?

On the one hand, if I see that the institution in question follows a large number of people, I don’t take their following me as a personal gesture outside of “we appreciate you.”  I certainly don’t think they’re seriously watching their tweetstream, so I don’t particularly worry about them cadging much personal info from me.  For me, any privacy-related concerns are lost in the volume of tweets the institution is receiving.

On the other hand, that very shotgun approach shows a lack of discernment that I find troubling. Institution, don’t you care about who you follow, or are we all just one great roaring mass of people?

But on the other hand, how else does an institution show honest appreciation to the people who follow them? Twitter doesn’t provide a whole lot of ways to say “Hey, you’re an individual we want to be connected to.”

But on the other hand, wouldn’t a one-off @ reply of thanks do the trick there?  “@visitorperson, we saw you started following us today. Thanks so much!”

On the other hand, maybe the institution might consider simply asking if their followers want to be followed in turn.  That, however, strikes me as a highly awkward and uncertain proposition. “Um, really, I don’t care that much about you, Honda.”

But on the other hand, what about direct messages? After all, they’re only available if each follows the other, and wouldn’t that be a nice way for an institution to get feedback?  This is true–we are cutting ourselves off of one possible channel of direct communication.  But to be fair, there certainly are plenty of others almost as easy.  Perhaps the solution there is to periodically tweet your institution’s main e-mail address (or a comments address you have one) and encourage them to contact you that way.

But in the end, doesn’t the individual (the “stalkee”) really have control?  They can always block the institution if the advance is unwanted.

On the other, why force them to have even one moment of “ick” feeling from an institution they might otherwise like and support?

Truth be told, there are no absolutes here. If I care a lot about or have an emotional attachment to the institution in question, I’m flattered (“ooh, they like me!”) but if I don’t, then I’m more than a little put off.

The point is, as the institutional tweeter, I can’t assume that our follower has that emotional attachment to my institution.

So where does that leave me?  In the end, my gut says that fewer people will be upset if I don’t follow them (even if it would be welcome) than will be upset if I do (when it is unwelcome), so I’ll stay with “not following, generally.”

But what’s so wrong with following a new follower?

Let me hand the mic to Judith Martin, who in her mild-yet-incisive way inveighs against the assumption of intimacy in a business relationship: “Miss Manners would like to point out that the pretense of intimacy among strangers in a business association . . . can be seriously annoying to either side.”

She goes on:

Why then is it not only more and more usual, but often vehemently defended?

The answer has to do with our noble commitment to egalitarianism, and a mistaken notion that it necessarily precludes privacy.  Among equals, are we not all friends?

Well, no. Equals get to choose their own friends, and while most people enjoy a cheerful demeanor while transacting the commercial details of daily life, not everyone wants to extend the privileges of friendship under those circumstances.

This is by no means to say that many restaurant patrons, for example, are not gratified to be recognized at places they customarily patronize, and to engage in such pleasantries as asking after one another’s health or family.

The point about such chatting, as in such other contacts between strangers as conversations on trains or airplanes, is that it should be agreeable to both sides, and that it should not assume the prerogatives of those who are on really familiar terms. [emphasis added in both cases]

Heed Miss Manners.

IF we as an institution develop a relationship within Twitter (or outside of it) and/or you as an individual follower seem especially invested in our institution as evinced through retweets of our tweets, feedback about our programs, and so on–well then I’ll happily follow you and think that doing so is very reasonable.  Just not before such a relationship is in evidence.

And one museum following another is simply the museum community supporting and learning from each other, so I would encourage that practice without reservation.

If a follower makes it clear that they’d be happy if you followed them, well by all means do so if you think it right.

So what about this idea of a #followavisitor Day?

Maybe instead of focusing on following our visitors–which may or may not be welcome–March 1 (or some other date) can be dedicated to institutions showing thanks for visitors both online and off? I doubt a museum’s tweeple will be upset if on this grand and glorious day the very heartfelt thanks of the institution is broadcast generally and very intentionally to all of them at the same time rather than individually.  Same for those who visit via Facebook, Flickr, the main web page, etc.

And there could and should be an offline component, expressing the same thanks to people who visit in person.  Maybe offer discounts or cookies or free shows.  Basically, I’d argue that #followavisitor day should be a multimodal tidal wave of appreciation for museum-goers of all kinds!

I’m all for it.


  1. If I started the relationship (by choosing to follow the museum), then how would a museum be a stalker to express an interest in what I am tweeting about in return?

    Personally I disagree with #followavisitor day, because museums should be expressing an interest in those who interact with them on twitter and facebook every day. In fact I think they’d look silly to need a special day for this.

    Good to see the debate happening though…


    February 2, 2010

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