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What We Can All Learn from Twitter’s #FollowFriday

There is a practice on Twitter called #followfriday. The point is to share about who you are following that you think others might be interested in following as well. It is also an opportunity to appreciate people for their contribution to you. And it was a really great thing. At least it was for a while.

Unfortunately good ideas can be executed badly and/or misused to the point where their purpose gets lost and their value gets diminished. Seth Simonds suggests this is exactly what has happened to #followfriday in his post Out with #FollowFriday and In with Connected Communities.

I agree with him, although I am not ready to abandon it quite yet.

I think if those of us who believe in its original purpose provide some leadership it could once again be a valuable practice that can deliver on its promise to the twitter community. In fact I think some people have continued to operate true to the original intent.

Yet what is most compelling to me is that this is not just a twitter story.

We can learn a lot about leadership and organizational behavior from observing what has been happening here. In fact, I’ll suggest that what has happened with #followfriday is a common phenomenon in communities of all kinds.

All too often programs are initiated in the spirit of doing something meaningful and aspirational, yet degrade to the point of becoming meaningless and even fueling resignation and cynicism. And yes I would call #followfriday a program because, while it is not formally administered in any way, it is a structured approach to accomplishing a goal. The goal here, as I understand it, is to connect and appreciate people.

Programs for acknowledgment and appreciation are particularly common in formally organized communities. Employee of the Month, Sports Awards Events, and Character Counts Certificate Programs are examples. Some work well, even leading to desired and lasting changes in behavior, and some do not.

Just like #followfriday, programs usually start out with noble intentions.

Yet we have all seen at least some of them fail to live up to their initial promise: awards are given that end up being meaningless to the recipients, distrust can be fueled when people believe the “panel” chose their favorites over the people who were really deserving, we have to pinch ourselves just to stay awake at a supposed celebratory event, etc.

Here are three signs a program is failing to deliver on its promise, followed by 3 things we can do about it.

—3 SIGNS OF FAILURE—

1. We lose sight of why we started the program to begin with.

Our mood when engaging in anything to do with the program does not match the spirit of the program’s intent. Resignation replaces enthusiasm and a sense of doing something that really matters. As a result we go through the motions with little sense of satisfaction.

2. Expectations take the place of authenticity.

We start feeling obligated rather than motivated to participate. And we start making our choices based on our considerations (e.g. will someone feel left out) rather than our commitments (e.g., wanting to acknowledge someone who you really believe stands out).

3. Individuals figure out how to work the system for their own personal gain AND we let them take over.

People start trying out new ways to manipulate the system so they win. We start to behave in ways and/or see behavior that is inconsistent with the original intent. And more often than not we do not say a word. We wait and hope someone else will intervene, or people will see the error of their ways, or we start complaining about “them”. We may just abandon the program altogether or sit on the sidelines hoping it just goes away.

—3 THINGS WE CAN DO TO GET BACK ON TRACK—

1. We can wake people up. That includes ourselves! Until I read Seth’s post I continued to go along even though something did not seem quite right. I thank him for holding up the mirror so I could wake up to what this was really all about once again.

Waking people up to their commitments is an act of leadership. However, be forewarned that it can initially make them angry because it can feel like you just got hit with a cold bucket of water. But if they are truly committed they will thank you for it later!

2. We can take personal responsibility. That starts with owning our part in the breakdown. I clearly played a part in the degradation of a once fabulous practice called #followfriday. One example is that I got lazy by posting lists of names instead of taking the time to share why I though someone was worth following.

Responsibility is not about beating yourself up though. If you are human you will at least occasionally get caught in the drift. It is what you do once you are awake that really matters because that is when you can choose to do something different (or not).

3 questions to help you get back on track when you have list your way are: 1 – what am I committed to here?, 2 – what could I do?, and 3 – what will I do?

3. We can take action. Do something to put things back on track OR choose to stop. If it is worthwhile take the point of view that success or failure is up to you and take action accordingly. On the other hand, letting something that isn’t working continue on because no one wants to admit it is not working is exhausting for the people involved and potentially damaging to the organization. Choosing to end something or offering an alternative way to accomplish the same goal can be very empowering.

Our willingness to provide leadership to any program can make the difference in whether or not it will succeed. It does not matter whether we are “in charge” or not. Our leadership still matters.

EVERY PERSON IN A SYSTEM CAN CONTRIBUTE TO THE SUCCESS OR FAILURE OF ANY ENDEAVOR IN THAT SYSTEM THROUGH WHAT THEY SAY AND WHAT THEY DO.

Look around you. Are you part of a program that is not living up to its promise? If so, what are you going to do now?

As for me, I have not given up on #followfriday. As a start I am going to stop just listing names and start making meaningful recommendations once again.

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Enter A Comment

Mike Henry   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

As usual, very good thoughts. I admit being part of the problem. “Hi, I’m Mike and I’m a #followfridayholic.” And all would respond, “Hi Mike!”

What if we posted a blog entry with a permalink that was everyone we thought you should follow and why? Everyone would be a paragraph with a link to their name and why we suggest you follow them. (That may be what the author in the link suggested. I haven’t read that article yet.)

I may work on that today.

Thanks!

Robyn McMaster   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Meaningful recommendations do make much more sense. It seemed that #followfriday had been confiscated by many folks only interested in numbers. That isn’t why I’m on Twitter.

Bruce Carlson   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

Yes, I suppose all of us are guilty in some way of turning #followfriday into a numbers contest. But I think for many of us, the problem is how to recognize as many cool people as possible without spending several hours doing it. Perhaps if it was #followsaturday instead of #followfriday, one might be able to go about it a little more leisurely and thoughtfully!

As a wise person once said, “It’s where you’re heart’s at that counts.” I know one woman who blogs about leadership whose heart is definitely in the right place. 🙂

Thanks once again for your insights Susan.

gyehuda   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Susan,
I totally agree with your call to action and your insight on personal responsibility.

I’ll share with you that I also picked up on the #followfriday ritual as being a team building activity: http://www.gilyehuda.com/2009/04/24/rituals/ When done well, it’s a great way to promote others and build communities.

Andrew Mueller   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Hello Susan,

An excellent post and analysis of the problems that currently exist with respect to #followfriday. Seth’s article also inspired me to write my own post. In my post I pointed out an alternative way to achieve the same goal. It could also be implemented within the #followfriday program, but this may prove futile given the rampant of the #followfriday tag.

For example, I was appalled last night when I saw @mashable post this Reminder: it’s #followfriday on Twitter! Here’s how Follow Friday works: http://bit.ly/2S29Fq The example is simply a list of names with no context. This tweet went out to his 599,380 followers!

I tweeted with seth and sent a link to my post, he thinks it maybe a way to sustainable way for community building recommendations. Here is the link in case you care to look. http://bit.ly/vZBfo

Best regards,
@andrewmueller

Trevor Rotzien   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Great post. I like the way you extend an understanding of the challenge of maintaining the value of #followfriday to other programs.

I’m going to take @andrewmueller’s advice: Recommend one person at a time, explain why you recommend them, and recommend on any day of the week. He suggests the #rec hashtag. Searching on #rec would provide results with reasons, not just lists of usernames.

Patti   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

Thanks for this thoughtful and considerate approach to the #FollowFriday ‘program’.

I have watched one user all week state that they were boycotting follow friday due to it’s lack of significance to her any more. I struggled with this as I have found and met some pretty amazing, intelligent, inspirational and positive people I would like to recommend.

As the list grows and am gaining more and more followers, because I interact with more people I find my recommendation list has grown. I think I took a friday off of work to do a fair job on that growing list.

Rather than practice the leadership traits I inherently follow myself, I was a sheep trying to accomplish that task within the unwritten guidelines of what follow friday was originally about.

Realistically, I can opt out of the pack; choose to recommend people based on their unique talents and contribution and I can do that any day of the week.

Thanks for the bump back to my own leadership awareness and the thoughtful approach to the topic.

Sophia von Wrangell   |   08 May 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your contribution. I think this is vital if we want to preserve the original reason why we joined Tweeter.

In light of the fact that Tweeter is being taken over by “stars” and public figures, I began to feel disappointed. it is running the risk of becoming so main stream that its original purpose might vanish and our effort, and the time invested in it, will have been lost.

When I see the list of names, I do not feel inspired to check them out. I will also take @andrewmueller’s advice! Thank you Andrew!

The accent here is on building community!
Let’s keep it in this spirit.

Thank you for your part in reminding all of us of our original reasons for joining.

Susan Mazza   |   09 May 2009   |   Reply

Thanks for all of your great comments.

@robynmcmaster meaningful recommendations is most certainly the point!

@mikehenry “Hi Mike…” – it is amazing how such little things can actually be a bit intoxicating

@gyehuda Glad to meet someone else who shares my fascination with the connection between twitter and organizational behavior. Love your insights on twitters connection to workplace rituals at http://www.gilyehuda.com/2009/04/24/rituals/

@AndrewMueller I love the alternative practices you suggest to #followfriday (for anyone who reads this comment please make sure to also check out http://bit.ly/vZBfo)

@brucecarlson I fell into the trap of listing names for the same reason – so many great people I want to tell others about! Yet for myself I am going back to quality over quantity. I also think community building is more of a “marathon than a sprint” and that is ultimately what I am committed to on twitter.

Susan Mazza   |   09 May 2009   |   Reply

@trevortozien I’m with you! Started using #rec today.

#rec as Andrews recommends is a practice that can truly be enduring. #followfriday is a great way to initiate a new practice of recommending and acknowledging people, but how we know it has become part of the “culture” is when we do it in the moment rather than waiting for a specific day.

@Patti A reminder for all of us that even leaders can unwittingly be sheep sometimes. We can’t possibly be conscious about everything all the time!

What distinguishes a leader is both a commitment to being awake, as well as what they do once they wake up – your comment demonstrates leadership beautifully.

@SophiaVonWrangell Clearly we have the same commitments here. It’s up to each one of us to create the kind of community we want so it is good to know I have partners in that 🙂

lawrence berezin   |   09 May 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

Great post. You delivered your message in a clear, concise fashion. Thanks for your insights.

How do you feel about the “If you follow me, I’ll follow you syndrome?” I was never very good with numbers, so I prefer to meet, greet and share experiences with the people I follow, and who follow me.

The bromide, “50,000 Twitter follower’s can’t be wrong” doesn’t constitute social proof to me. How about you?

Jerry Roberts   |   09 May 2009   |   Reply

This really stood out for me:

“Programs for acknowledgment and appreciation are particularly common in formally organized communities. Employee of the Month, Sports Awards Events, and Character Counts Certificate Programs are examples. Some work well, even leading to desired and lasting changes in behavior, and some do not.”

For years I have led a course that deals with this and one of the problems is that organizational leaders often take what I refer to as a “checklist” approach to recognition and rewards. They see it as an obligation, put a program together, implement it, check it off the list — “NEXT!”

What they wind up with are a series of events that have little or no connection, and no direction or ultimate destination. Further, few organizations measure customer or worker satisfaction to see if any improvement has taken place. Some don’t even think about how it all connects to retention rates.

With respect to #FollowFriday, I’ve done it a couple of times and have also been nominated. Unless I’ve missed something there is no way to know if it had any effect on my list of followers. I didn’t see any huge spike in follows when I was mentioned. Maybe #FollowFriday works better for people with hair. 🙂

If there was a way to monitor this and, say, by mentioning someone I could learn that they picked up 100 new followers, that would be an incentive to do it again. We all want to help people and that would be a nice stroke.

Excellent post. It’s always a pleasure to get your feed. I know there’s going to be a payoff.

Best,

Jerry

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