Following is fraught. Twitter’s simple-on-purpose social interface–you are either following someone’s tweets, which means they visibly populate your feed, or you aren’t, and they don’t–has nevertheless led many a tweeter to obsess about what a follow really means. An endorsement? An expectation? A subscription? It was hard to tell. Well, Twitter has now settled the issue by introducing a feature called “mute.” From now on, what following really means is essentially the same as what friending on Facebook means: absolutely nothing.
This isn’t to say that the feature isn’t well-intentioned. Twitter describes muting as a way to “edit your experience”: you can now hide someone’s tweets from your feed without severing the connection by unfollowing them. Twitter doesn’t notify someone when you mute them, so it seems like a win-win in etiquette terms: the muter can politely ignore whomever he or she chooses, and the mutees get to keep their follower count up. For anyone following hundreds or thousands of users, muting is also a godsend for basic comprehensibility. You can reduce the amount of content that spews out of Twitter’s firehose to a level that’s actually human-readable.
The move might help Twitter make itself look healthier to Wall Street, too. Granting users the ability to mute each other removes any disincentive they might have to follow more people. Twitter’s user base might not be growing as quickly as investors hoped, but if the company can show that the users it already does have are more engaged than ever, that certainly couldn’t hurt.
These gains would come at a cost, though. The act of following on Twitter is a subtle but important kind of communication in itself. When you follow another user, you’re sending him or her a signal that you’re paying attention. Exactly what kind of attention, how much, what for, and for how long? Well, those are the tea leaves that Twitter users have been trying to read in each other’s follower stats for years. But the basic, binary message behind following–“I’m opening this channel” or “I’m closing it”–had intrinsic value. Communication researchers and designers call this kind of meta-signaling a phatic expression. These expressions don’t carry “content” in the traditional sense; saying “what’s up?” to someone is almost never a request for actual information. It just serves to open the channel.
Following on Twitter had similar phatic value. Granted, that value has been steadily eroding for some time–when I see that I’m one of 12,000 people that someone is following, I don’t assume that the person is actually interested in my tweets, even though I know that they would appear in the feed somewhere. But with muting, even that vague, faint vestige of phatic expression is erased. The only message that a follow unambiguously sends is that my username has been added to the follower’s basket. Following isn’t intrinsically about communication anymore. It’s about shopping.
Of course, Twitter still has an array of more robust phatic channels, like favoriting and retweeting. Maybe those statistics will become a more important measure of engagement than how many followers one has, just as “unique visitors” is eclipsing pageviews as a meaningful metric for measuring web traffic. In the meantime, you can worry less about how to juice up your follower count.