The ethics of building a Twitter audience

Ideas always start as ideals

Maybe it started here. Maybe it’s been around a long time. But Kevin Kelly popularised the idea of ‘a thousand true fans’ with his 2008 article. He speaks of ‘cultivating’ fans, of having a direct relationship with them, and of that being a full time job. He mentions micro or distributed patronage. There is an air of respect for these True Fans in how Kelly speaks about them.

And what have we become? In the creator economy of the 2020’s, building a Twitter audience is considered a foundational first step to making an independent living on the internet. If you don’t have anyone to sell to, how can you make any money? And there is no shortage of guides on how to grow your Twitter following from those who have made six-figure incomes.

A thousand true fans dedicated to your art has become a faceless audience of twenty thousand followers. And with scale comes negative externalities that are easy to miss or ignore.

The currency of the internet is attention. Attention has a cost for those giving it and a benefit for those receiving it. How much do those wanting to build a Twitter audience consider that cost?

Tactics vs ethics

How social media platforms drive their engagement metrics does not have to become the default behaviour for creators. Sending unsolicited and unwanted direct messages to new followers because that’s what the playbook says you should do to increase engagement doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. You don’t know them, or what they might be going through right now. If you’re messaging them because you only care about your agenda, and if you believe that them following you gives you implicit permission to message them, to go into their private space uninvited, then please reconsider your tactics in light of your ethics.

Not all audience building tactics are as ethical as they could be.

The rationale for building an audience in unethical ways is the same as it’s always been – rivalrous dynamics – “If I don’t do it, someone else will”. If that new follower likes someone else’s thread, signs-up to someone else’s newsletter, buys someone else’s online course, then they won’t buy mine. Scarcity mindset aside, if that’s what they choose to do then you should be able to respect their choice.

The concept of an ‘audience’ as yours, that you own, and somehow believe that you have permission to communicate with and monetise in whatever way you see fit, fails to recognise that the audience is made up of people. If you see ‘your audience’ in this way you might want to reconsider. And if you haven’t even thought about it, then you might want to consider doing that too.

It’s a difficult thing to do. In writing this, my understanding of who the reader will be is extremely limited. I don’t expect many creators to read it, in fact I don’t expect many people at all to read it. If any creators do read it, I hope it helps them to think about how to align their personal values (which I want to believe are mostly good) with the ways they approach building an audience on Twitter, and how they can choose to consider the people that make up that audience is a more respectful way.

Who benefits?

The use of social networks to signal status as a means of demonstrating expertise on the internet is an attempt to solve the information good problem. How does someone know that the ebook or online course is going to give them sufficient value for them to want to pay for it before they’ve read the ebook or taken the course? Doing the work to provide value to people creates that proof, builds reputation, but there isn’t a shortcut. At least, there isn’t an ethical shortcut.

Nowhere in all that I read about building a Twitter audience did any of the authors encourage their readers to think of their audience as made up of real people with real lives. There was talk of ‘your audience’, as if it is possible to own them in competition with others, and even of tweeting specifically with the intention of making people get upset (please don’t do this), but none of the advice said anything about the ethics at play.

I should be clear, I’m not saying that getting more followers on Twitter is a bad thing, but I am suggesting that not treating and respecting them as people, advancing your own agenda regardless of theirs, and adopting the attention-grabbing strategies of the social media platforms is likely to do more long-term harm for everyone than it does short-term good for you.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to treat ‘your audience’ as a commodity. You’re better than that. You can find more ethical ways to engage with people and let them choose to become your ten thousand true fans.