Sunday, August 2, 2009 Great New Way to Find Followers or Spam? You Decide!

If you've assisted a Twitter newbie in their first tentative steps into microblogging, you know that the concept of "following" is tough to grasp for the uninitiated. A common error for Twitter newbies is to start tweeting without seeking out others to follow. This leads to a poor Twitter experience--broadcasting tweets into a void with little opportunity for dialog and no listening.

FollowFormation is a new service that aims to help Twitter newbies find and follow top Twitterers in several topic categories. Considering how few Web 2.0 companies seem to have any idea how to make money, the fact that FollowFormation has a business model attracted my attention. But, that business model may leave the door open for spam in your Twitter stream.

To get the bottom of FollowFormation's service and business model, I interviewed the site's 18-year-old founder, Brian Wong. I remain skeptical of FollowFormation's approach, but Wong's responses to my vaguely hostile questions demonstrate that those behind the new Twitter service have given consideration to the challenge of balancing a quality user experience with the need to monetize their service.

Is FollowFormation a great new tool to grow your Twitter follow list? Or is it a vehicle for spam? You can decide for yourself--this blog post conveys a description of's service and my challenging interview with Wong.

What is FollowFormation?

FollowFormation promises users an extremely easy way to grow their Twitter follower lists with relevant Twitterers. Just enter your Twitter username and password, select the topic categories in which you're interested, and choose whether you want to follow 10, 20, or 50 new Twitterers in each category. FollowFormation automatically adds the specified number of Twitterers to your Twitter follow list.

It is easy as can be, but I had concerns about allowing any service to select and automatically add Twitter followers for me. FollowFormation provides a small preview of the sorts of people they'll add, but you can only review the first five for any topic category.

To (aguably) make matters worse, this service has a business model that permits people and brands to buy their way onto the FollowFormation lists. Since the service only reveals the first five Twitterers in a topic (including the top paid Twitter profile), people who use FollowFormation will add not just unknown Twitterers to their follow lists but also people and brands that paid for access to your Twitter feed.

Is this a value-added service or a way to get spam into your Twitter feed. Let me know what you think after reviewing my interview with Brian Wong.

Interview with FollowFormation Founder Brian Wong

Twitter still leaves many people confused. (According to Fast Company, 70% of Americans are still clueless about the microblogging site.) It's not the tweeting that causes questions--everyone "gets" entering a status update and clicking the "Update" button. It's the microblogging concept of followers and following that seem to leave some people scratching their head. Brian, how does FollowFormation help these confused folks?

Followformation helps new Twitter users (we call them “Chirpers”) find more meaning in the following concept when they first start out. We do this by empowering them to quickly find and follow the top people in the areas that they are interested in. We feel that it is a more semantic approach to provide a discovery tool that helps users choose to follow based on their interests.

People quickly understand that following is simply keeping tabs on a feed of information that is updated in real-time - and to automatically pre-populate this feed is an incredibly useful step. We are essentially Twitter’s “suggested users list” (the list you see when you sign up, and are recommended to follow), but on steroids. It’s a lot more meaningful to see categories than a bunch of profiles with checkboxes next to them.

Where did you get the idea for

It actually came to me in the middle of the night, much like most of my other ideas. I was browsing around on WeFollow, and I was thinking to myself of how I didn’t think that the directory would be of much use to new Twitter users who didn’t really have the time to shop around for people. I also had a lot of friends who just signed up to Twitter and really disliked the fact that they were simply given a group of celebrities to follow via the “Suggested users” feature; that was hardly meaningful to them when starting out. Then I realized that following by interest, much like Netvibes does with its pre-populating of its customized homepages, was the way to go.

While the ease of use of FollowFormation is great, it might be too great. The idea that I'd let you choose ten (or 20 or 50) people and automatically follow them for me with no approval or vetting process leaves me uncomfortable. Why should I trust FollowFormation's recommendations?

I’m glad you find that Followformation is incredibly easy to use - and that was our main intention, given our target audience.

You should trust our recommendations because we aggregate our user data and category data based on a few directories, and use popularity as our method of indicating how top a user really is. In general, to the Chirper, this is a very reasonable way of discovering and trusting top users based on category.

But we aren’t sitting underneath a rock! We’ve heard the concerns about new followers in inappropriate categories and the potential for spammers to game themselves into the process. That is why in the short run we’re building the ability for users to report inappropriate category and spam, and in the long run we’re building in our own mechanism to categorize and rank individuals by more advanced data like Retweet data and positive or negative sentiment based on feed analysis from services like Peoplebrowsr.

Unlike so many Web 2.0 sites and tools, you actually have a business model in mind, and I respect that! Unfortunately, your business model leaves me uncomfortable--you propose allowing people and businesses to buy themselves a place on the lists of Twitter profiles that get automatically added to FollowFormation user's Twitter followers. This sounds like a muddling of content/editorial with advertising! In what way do you feel this is not spam?

Because this is the first aggregator/tool that enables individuals and brands alike to claim a stake in each category on a bidding model, we’d like to think that we’re one of the few social media advertising platforms in the world right now that aims to provide true value to its users.

You’re phrasing the question as if the notion of muddling content with advertising is spam. This model is used in a different form on media properties all across the internet. It’s a tried and true model of attention and awareness that companies and individuals are comfortable with utilizing, and users are comfortable with consuming. Our policy is to replace only up to 10% of number of people followed by paid listers. That means the maximum number of people you could follow that are inserted are at 15 (with our limits at 150).

Essentially what I’m saying is that advertising can be value added, and users would always be first for us. That is why, given the sheer amount of interest and e-mails we have been receiving about these features spots, we haven’t already started listing advertisers! We aren’t here to rush to the dollar signs - we’re frankly more interested in catering to the users interests first, and then enabling the advertising model only if it doesn’t take away from the entire user experience.

Actually, muddling content and advertising is not spam only when there is a clear difference between advertising and content (as with Google AdWords and Google organic results), but it is spam when there is no difference, which is the case with FollowFormation, in my opinion. On your site, you’re offering pre-selected offers—choosing advertisers to auto-follow based on a consumer’s selected category—and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has issued best practices for “pre-selected offers” that state these are fine provided the consumer is given the chance to opt-out and/or skip the offer. Have you considered an opt-out from paid auto-followers?

In visual terms, we make clear colour divisions in our user category previews that show which users in the formation are paid (i.e. “featured”), or not. This will help make that difference obvious. (Augie's note: FollowFormation only provides a sample of the first one paid and four unpaid followers; if users choose to add 20 or more followers using FollowFormation, they cannot preview the additional paid or sponsored followers.)

I think that making the direct connection between what Followformation does and an opt-out advertising model does is inaccurate. Although we are a platform for advertising, we are using a very unique social network and concept to test this process with – much like people would not directly compare “following” with subscribing to an RSS feed (mainly because the level of engagement is not the same), I wouldn’t try to compare the two. We will take feedback accordingly and if we are seeing an overwhelming demand for an opt-out system, we can consider implementing it.

What feedback are you receiving on FollowFormation’s business model?

Feedback so far on this model has largely been positive. People will be polarized on this issue though, I’m afraid, much like yourself. But beyond the nitty gritty, on a larger scope of things, this model I hope will show the world how social media monetization strategies don’t have to always be static or mundane - frankly I believe that the more controversial they are, perhaps, the more impactful overall they will be.

Can you expand upon that last thought—that the more controversial an ad model is, the more impactful it will be? Courting controversy sounds risky for advertisers. Back when Facebook launched Beacon, it was certainly controversial, but the initial controversy didn’t seem to benefit brands being advertised; in fact, several advertisers including Blockbuster and Overstock were sued for their participation in Beacon. How do you see FollowFormation’s controversy benefiting advertisers?

Beacon was incredibly controversial because of its egregious infringements on respect for privacy. This type of controversy is unhealthy. Our controversy is meant to be healthy – to only stimulate discussion and perhaps interest of adoption of our formation model on other Twitter app websites. We’re working on partnerships with other directories to enable an enhanced value proposition when someone is signed on into the formation. It’s about providing value beyond simple exposure through a “follow”. We coordinating with dozens of interested advertisers right now – it’s a process that will take a lot of effort because of our approval process, but effort we are willing to put in to ensure the quality of the formations on our directories – benefitting user experience at the end of the day.

Your site says FollowFormation will review and approve advertisers who bid for spots on your lists. What criteria will you use to ensure those buying their way onto follower lists will be relevant and ethical and not just spammers?

We’ve pretty much finalized this criteria, but we expect that approved Twitter accounts will be older than 90 days, have a minimum amount of followers (and a follower to following ratio that is greater than 1), a minimum amount of retweets on average per day, and a consistent quality of tweet of content that is relevant to the category requested.

Will you be publishing this criteria on your site and allowing consumers to comment? Are you open to people weighing in on these criteria? If so, how might someone with feedback share their ideas and concerns?

This criteria summary will be published on the Formation page. We are incredibly open to feedback, and we care a lot about our users – in fact, we have been blogged about that here:

If someone has feedback they can e-mail me at brian ‘at’ and I will respond personally. We welcome feedback, as we are still in beta. That will show that our users care, and we love that.

We had a beta test period for approximately two weeks before we launched. It was actually during this period that we were suggested the user category previews, and the custom category feature. We have acted on user feedback before, and we will again. Although features like those may seem obvious to some, they aren’t to others. For us, it’s a matter of cutting through all the suggestions to the ones that really impact the usability of our tool the most for majority of our audience. Aer Marketing is also Followformation’s parent company. The company has a great network of advisors that have been helping Followformation’s scope grow in the past few weeks and will be helping further growth in the months to come. What we have essentially done is built channels of feedback from multiple sources to help develop Followformation as a tool to its fullest potential. And, as we are in beta, we are always in flux; and our direction in the next few months will be a reflection of this pattern.

How can a FollowFormation user ensure they won't end up automatically following a Twitter profile they find offensive? For example, an indie music lover could select your "Music" list and end up following the RIAA's or Britney Spears' Twitter profiles, if they were high bidders for your Music list. Or a family movie lover could end up following a vulgar movie campaign on Twitter if that film's studio bids for the "Entertainment" category. Those are just two hypothetical examples, but without any vetting process, this sort of situation could occur frequently for FollowFormation users. How do the users of your service protect themselves from following someone they otherwise wouldn't?

I’ve mentioned the feature we’re building in shortly that allow people to report users - this will be a valuable feature for helping us determine who to remove or re-categorize on our lists internally.

To be frank, the only way to tell if someone’s content really is offensive or vulgar is to see it come across your feed - we’re not preventing our users from moving through their own following lists at the end of the day and unfollowing truly poor quality tweeters.

We could build in the feature to manually deselect users when the following action occurs, but in my opinion, that would be a very shallow way of utilizing user discretion - you won’t be able to judge a tweeter until you’ve seen the tweets. And to preserve the simplicity of it all, we want to keep it a cool three steps.

While there is substantial value to helping Twitterers find like-minded Twitterers, why not give people the opportunity to review and accept FollowFormation's recommendations? If you allowed your users to review and select folks to follow--and also presented them with clearly delineated "sponsored Twitter accounts"--this would be like bringing the established and ethical Google/AdWords model to Twitter following. Doesn't adding a step seem like a way to keep consumers in control of their own Twitter follower lists?

I agree, and this is a feature we’re building out. Perhaps not in the exact form you’re suggesting, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t put into place a formal way of empowering users to suggest other Twitter users to be in certain categories. Or to remove them. Yes I am aware that Pete Wentz is in the “entrepreneur” category. He’ll be out of there shortly.

You're a very interesting guy--an 18-year-old entrepreneur who's launched his own business (Aer Marketing), developed a Web 2.0 business model, and created a functional and attractive Web tool with FollowFormation. Please share a little bit about yourself: What motivates you, and what would you like to achieve with your career?

I am motivated by seeing change, and I am motivated by challenge. I am also motivated by the energy of the people around me, so I always try to include collaboration and cooperation into every one of our projects. We can only be so impactful in the world; it is more about how effectively we can work with other movers and shakers that determines how much we can change at the end of the day. I am also motivated by the great talent and energy in the people around me – I can only express the most respect and appreciation for my partner in crime for Followformation, Lucas Lemanowicz. He is Followformation as much as I am, and his smarts keep this project on the cutting edge as well.

I’m still very young, and quite honestly, I’m not quite sure where my career will take me. I would like a fulfilling career that follows no predefined set of rules that I can forge on my own - that will provide me with a rich set of experiences and skills that I can use for many different things. I think that as an entrepreneur I will always be somewhat of a slave to my own ideas - I just hope that in the years to come I will become even more and more effective and efficient at making them a reality, and also to become more internally liberated to give up the ideas that I know won’t challenge me or change anything.

Blogger's Note: So, what do you think? Is this an ethical and appropriate business model? Or is it an open door for spammers? Would you use ?


Nick said...

I'm impressed that the founder is 18. Recently, though, I've gotten very leery of sites that aren't using OAuth with Twitter and aren't 100% transparent. I had a tweet posted without my permission, so now I'm hyper-aware of sites I sign up with. You have to trust the site before using it.

The concept is not flawed. It's a bright idea that just needs careful implementation.

Augie Ray said...


I wish I had the maturity, vision, and energy of Brian Wong when I was 18! (Speaking of age, Happy Birthday!)

I agree with you about the nervousness i have with giving access to my Twitter feeds to unknown entities. Personally, I find FollowFormation's model flawed, but it could be fixed easily--simply give users the opportunity to review and accept the follower recommendations.

Thanks for the comment!