Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Follow Friday and The No Free Lunch Theory

Lessons from Marcel Mauss on the popular Twitter phenomenon of Follow Friday.

Readers, do you remember our discussion on Marcel Mauss from a while back? A member of my grad school cohort once referred to him as the “no free lunch guy.” Mauss had some interesting ideas about the nature of gifts:
  1. First, they’re laden with obligations—for both the giver and the recipient.
  2. And second, they’re always trying to get back to the original giver.
Essentially, Mauss wrote that there is honor in gift giving because to be able to give a gift, you have to have the means to do so. It boosts your social capital to give a gift, but it also costs you something to make the offering. Receiving a gift requires the recipient to lower their own capital, as well as incur an expense to returning the favor of the gift to the giver. The giver in turn in obligated to take a turn as a recipient. To do otherwise would be poor form. To refuse to receive:
“is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate, to fear being ‘flattened’ [i.e. to lose face]” (Mauss 2000: 41).
It means that you don’t have the means of reciprocating and that you’re denying the giver a chance to advance. To refuse a gift from a recent recipient also means you’re denying the individual a chance to reclaim her status—which was diminished by accepting the gift in the first place. (For more on this, see here, here, and here.) So not only do you have to be someone to give the gift in the first place, but you have to have the means of returning the thing as well. And here you thought gifts are just lovely gestures of generosity when in fact, they’ve apparently got intentions and meanings of their own!

So my former colleague wasn’t too far off in her assessment. According to Mauss’ cycle of reciprocation, gifts come riddled with obligations. Think this is a bit far fetched? We really only need to turn to Twitter on any given Friday to see this played out.

On Fridays, my Twitter stream is taken over by a flood of “Follow Friday” shout outs. Just in case you aren’t on Twitter—though I recommend it—Follow Friday is a way to tell others about interesting people you may be following, and a way of thanking or otherwise acknowledging those who have shared your Tweets or mentioned you during the week. There was—and still can be—genuine meaning in these recommendations, but increasingly Follow Friday appears to be a social capital grab—a means of building oneself up by handing out mass Follow Friday recommendations and riding the wave of reciprocal Follow Friday acknowledgements which invariably follow.

Follow Friday can be likened to a gift in that when a user is included in a Follow Friday mention, the user typically feels obligated to respond. Follow Friday requires a person to put a bit of their reputation on the line—if you’re making a recommendation, it reflects on you. And the mentioned is obligated to respond either with reciprocal Follow Friday or with a simple thank you. There are recommenders who take this seriously. They’re aware of their social clout, and they consider who they call out via Follow Friday. Often, they make clear why they’re promoting specific users (e.g, #FF @JaneDoe for always sharing the most amazing space photos) and there is a sense that the recommendation has been vetted in some way.

However, a growing number of Twitter users are handing out Follow Fridays en masse with the expectation that they will get some sort of response that they can then broadcast as a means of their connectivity. Often, they have little social standing online—they haven’t built up their own digital reputation, but have spent time retweeting the shares of others. Come Friday, they include all their followers in their Follow Friday recommendation, and then retweet the thanks they receive as a means of bolstering their reputation. This may work the first few times, but starts to get wearying by the fourth or fifth instance because (a) the gift begins to lost its potency as a means of increasing the status of the giver and (b) the obligation to reciprocate becomes a real chore without benefit. The giver is always the giver, and the recipient is always the one offering thanks. There is no balance, just a lopsided continuation of a hierarchy in a relationship that comes to be viewed as superficial.

Part of the issue is that often the person behind the mass Follow Friday call out may not have taken the time to introduce herself to the mentioned so there is a feeling that the mentioned’s digital persona is being commandeered to bolster someone else’s reputation. Online social recommendations are becoming more frequent, and they’ve worked thus far because there is a sense of honesty to them. The mass Follow Friday loses a sense of this honesty and importance.

Some folks avoid Follow Friday altogether, and other choose to keep their thanks private via a DM or a retweet that shares something from the recommender later in the week. Others store mentions and acknowledge them in a group. How do you navigate the Follow Friday scene?

Additional thoughts 11/11/10: So the more I think about this, the more I come back to one question: Are we losing sight of the word "friend" as per Hruschka's suggestion? What the Follow Friday transaction boils down to in some cases is a quid pro quo action—I've recommended you, now recommend me. But friendship, which is the basis for connections in some social networking settings, as Hruschka describes it does not work in this way. Friends do not keep a tab and feel that they have to reciprocate. So is the social capital grab that occurs on Fridays on Twitter an outgrowth of the medium as the reader below suggests? Would this type of behavior seem more acceptable on LinkedIn where the idea is that you are connecting for business and networking where quid pro quo is a facet of the relationship?

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

Mauss, Marcel.
2000 The Gift. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.


  1. The whole following of a stranger concept on twitter seems designed to compel the other person to follow back.

  2. I think in some ways it's less guilt-laden than Facebook though, where you may feel that you have to justify not following someone you know IRL. I know folks who have gone back and forth on friending co-workers and supervisors, conflicted between feeling like they have to connect and not wanting to let those people into a private part of their lives. With Twitter, it can feel a bit like eavesdropping, but I feel that there's less demand for a reciprocal follow.

  3. Though I've been using Twitter about a year, I've only seen #ff pop up among very few of the people I follow very recently. I don't use follow friday, instead I sometimes look at the people mentioned in retweets and @replies from my friends.

    The majority of my followers & people I follow are friends I've already made offline from around the UK and we use it as another way of keeping in touch. Though there's a few online-only ones I follow for website & news updates. With Twitter it seems OK & normal to have followers who you don't have any relationship with, and may never meet.

  4. Another fascinating article. Until reading this article, I never thought about gift giving like you and your cohort but it makes incredible sense. I think that you mentioned this implicitly, but I think it's fascinating to consider what happens when you refuse a gift from someone who is trying to "settle the score." Consider:

    A gifts to B.
    B feels indebted and A owed.
    B attempts to gift to A; A refuses.
    A's refusal implies that they want to maintain that indebtedness and, it seems to me, maintain that position of superiority or control over person B.

    The way you apply this concept to FF is very interesting. Like your update notes, I'm not sure that FF is a true "gift". I agree that it seems more like a name drop or power grab.

    Thanks again for the great article!

    Happy (follow) Friday!

  5. This was great food for thought. I think it is very helpful for articles to be analysing these online social behaviours, giving us more of a birds-eye view of the phenomena, or cementing our perceptions of the behaviours.
    I tend to prefere and use the alternative to #ff that you mention: replying to someone to thank them for a helpful tweet. Much more personal and genuine anyway, even though we may not know that individual offline.
    Thanks for writing this,
    Liz Durkin

  6. Great post and great site. Congratulations!

  7. @Stephen: Yes, Twitter definitely encourages connections with people that you have never met—most of my connections are with folks I have not met IRL, but we have come to converse so frequently that I feel the line has been blurred. I also look at retweets and @ replies from connections I have come to trust and respect—if it's worthwhile for them to retweet something from that person, I may want to consider following that individual more closely myself.

    @Will, I think it's a power grab disguised as a gift. It's like the friend who always pays when you go out to lunch—not because he is being generous or even because he is treating you because you're on hard times, but because it in debts you to him.

    @Anon/Liz, glad you enjoyed it! I find that method leads to more personal contact ... but I guess if a person has 3,000 followers he/she may not be looking for personal contact anyway.