Tom Howlett

The Problem with Authority on Twitter

20th Aug 2012 Social Media, Social Media, Twitter 10 minutes to read

TwitterTwitter is one of those platforms you either love or hate. Some people swear by it, others just go as far to create a profile and tend to leave it there. There are even some who use it as a platform to create multiple personas for the alleged website benefits. I imagine most of these people have their own reasons for using Twitter and have their own thoughts on what benefit they feel it brings. I personally have taken a while to get used to the Twitter platform; I am not too comfortable announcing to the world what I am up to at any given moment – a kind of extension to Facebook. I can however see the benefit when it comes to networking with people within your own industry and interacting with fans or customers. It breaks down many barriers and makes interacting with a lot of interesting people very easy, whereas previously it was quite difficult.

There is however a problem with Twitter and authority. It is very easy to set yourself up as being an authority within your field, regardless of whether you have advanced knowledge or not. It creates a sort of blurring of information and makes you want to ask – Is this information correct? Can I trust what this person is saying? Does this qualify as real news? Can I trust any of the information on Twitter?

Why do people use Twitter?

I wanted to go over a few reasons why people may use Twitter and the type of people who join. There will probably be lots of reasons but I will try to list of a few that are most likely.

Types of users:

  • The self confessed internet geek who was on Twitter right from the beginning
  • The personal user who Tweets about the goings on in their life
  • The celebrity
  • The professional who wants to network and promote their own business or services
  • The company – official company Twitter accounts
  • The employee – on Twitter to help promote the company they work for and network
  • The blogger – looking to promote their content and site to a wider audience

Reasons for joining Twitter:

  • To talk about interests, life, to share and to meet people
  • To join friends who are already using the platform
  • To interact with fans, followers and increase engagement
  • To promote yourself as an individual
  • To promote your business or website
  • To network
  • To secure the presence on Twitter
  • To learn – some may choose Twitter as a good platform to learn about a certain subject
  • To keep up to date on global, national and industry related news

What makes a user Authoritative?

So what are the tell-tale signs that a person is an authority within their field? There are a few signs that point to an authoritative figure, there are also various things someone will do if they want to be portrayed as such on Twitter.

Job Titles

The job title is an initial indication that an individual may be an authority within the industry. If for example they are an established author, a director or CEO, head of a department for a large organisation or anything similar, they are probably quite likely to know their stuff. This does not necessarily mean that their presence on Twitter is focused on providing useful content to others but they are generally quite interesting to follow.

This can also be misconstrued; a so called ‘director’ may have just left university and setup a company straight away. This does not necessarily mean they are an authority within their field but may be interesting to follow nevertheless.

The Description

The description is what someone will use to promote themselves; it doesn’t offer much space so people have to be smart with what they put in this section as it can create more followers if done well.

People tend to add their interests, past experience, current job situation and information about what they may tweet. This suggests it can be key to realising authority on Twitter; however it really isn’t that simple.

The problem exists because what someone adds to the description is optional, meaning that they can represent themselves how they want. The job title or associated websites is probably the only element that indicates a certain level of provable authority.

There is an odd element or trend that I have noticed throughout the world of Twitter, that a large proportion of already established authority figures and leaders within various industries avoid self promotion within the description completely. More often than not it contains little information into their background or working life. Take Bill Gates as an example – an obvious authority within the world of computing – his Twitter description does little to convince anyone he is authoritative in any line of business, other than having a ‘verified profile’ indicator on the page.

Bill Gates Twitter

I spotted a similar issue with the Twitter profile of David Karp (Tumblr founder and CEO). I am not even sure if this profile is official besides having a large number of followers.

This brings me to my next point; it is easy to create false profiles on Twitter under any handle. This makes it very hard to distinguish between official and false profiles (if they do not have a verified profile). There tends to be many different accounts and spoof accounts for high profile people.

Number of followers

The number of followers can be an indication of how popular or authoritative someone is on Twitter; you expect the likes of Bill Gates and David Karp to have a large following because of their status. This does create a problem for less well known authority figures that aren’t necessarily in the public eye.

Take the science industry for example, a distinguished professor may not have a huge following but will still be posting valuable information regarding their work.

I have also seen people who have a large following but also follow a large number of people. There is a culture on Twitter who like to reciprocate the follow and although there is nothing wrong with that, it can make some people seem much more authoritative then they really are. There are various websites and groups such as Follow Friday, which are used purely for increasing the number of followers, which also creates this problem.

If you look at the proportion of followers to the number of people they follow, this can be a good indication of authority within their field. But there is a problem with that also, the ability for people to buy Twitter followers. This is a way of gaming Twitter and causes a problem in distinguishing authority.

This can cause problems, highlighted in the following article on The Kernel. Follower information is available online if you dig deep enough; there is also a fake follower check you can see by visiting the following link (

Methods of detecting users who have purchased followers are all well and good; however I don’t know many people who would go as far to check this information other than to make this information public for their own gain.

Verified accounts

As mentioned briefly in the previous section, Twitter does offer verified accounts that confirm a person or business is who they say they are. This feature is not available for anybody and is reserved for high profile users and celebrities.

There are many cases where there are likely to be well known and authoritative users on Twitter without verified accounts, so this feature is mainly useful for celebrity users who may have lots of false and spoof accounts setup for them.

Building authority on or off Twitter?

Twitter is not the only platform where people can build up an authority online. Some users will enjoy great success outside Twitter and immediately gain a large following when they join the platform. There are many high profile people in the online tech industry who have built up a following elsewhere and this has been carried across to Twitter.

Let’s say you have a popular Blog on a certain topic, you publish lots of useful content and have gained a valuable following. There is a high chance your success will carry across to Twitter if you have a profile and advertise the profile on your Blog. A great example of someone who is doing this well is Glen off of ViperChill; he has created a website that pushes out some really useful content and has gained the Twitter following that reflects this. It is also worth mentioning that he doesn’t Blog that often or even Tweet that often, but has built his reputation through his own web properties.

This leads me to assume that a large proportion of the real authoritative Twitter users have built their following by first having that initial authority elsewhere online and subsequently gaining lots of Twitter followers.

If you discover what looks like an authoritative user via Twitter, you might want to ask yourself how authoritative they may be within their industry. Are you likely to trust the content they are promoting?

External tools

There are a number of internal and external tools and features that help establish power users on Twitter. I have listed some of these here; let me know if you know of any others.

  • Twitter lists – Users can put lists together that contain influential Twitter users surrounding certain topics or industries. A good way to find good people to follow.
  • Twitter Suggested Users – Use the Twitter search function to find users related to those searches, this also suggests people based on who you currently follow. In my experience these tend to be the higher profile users.
  • Klout – This is an external site that measures influence on various social platforms. Their method of calculating influence is based on a number of factors. This isn’t an exact science, however it can highlight certain power users and influential figures.
  • Other External Tools – There are many Twitter associated websites to help rank and find people on Twitter within certain industries, too many to mention here.
  • Blogs – Industry related Blogs can help people to find authoritative figures, especially in the digital marketing industry, I have seen many Blog posts that aim to list ‘must follow’ Twitter users in the industry.

The above tools can help find popular and influential users on Twitter; they all use various different methods in calculating authority including recommendations. The problem here is that many of them are likely to consider the number of followers as a strong indicator and as discussed, this is easy to manipulate.

Do people want to follow authority figures?

Although we have established that finding authority figures on Twitter isn’t an easy job, do people really want to follow these types of people on Twitter? In terms of famous personalities and celebrities, it is interesting to have an insight into their personal lives and the things they may be getting up to.

Some so-called ‘authority figures’ use Twitter purely to join in the conversation; they rarely promote their own content. This makes following them even more interesting and adds to the almost relaxed atmosphere that Twitter creates. It is an open platform that has broken down many boundaries compared with previous forms of communication online.

There may be reasons to follow an authority, perhaps they do give out some really useful advice and promote content that is entertaining or engaging. They may be a source of news within the industry and are constantly up to date with recent happenings – in this case, I believe the authority to have an influence but this certainly isn’t the only reason people will follow.


I believe there is an issue with authority on Twitter, anyone can portray themselves as being an authority on a specific subject and there are ways in which they can manipulate the profile to appear that way. This can cause problems if false information appears online (from one of these profiles) and quickly spreads around the Twitterverse.

There is another side to Twitter though that appears to dominate. The ability to join in on the conversation, network, share, get insight into the lives of others, receive ideas and be inspired. This is the beauty of Twitter, a side where authority is almost disregarded and lesser known people can carve their opinion on the world. It is not a platform that I think should be taken too seriously – sometimes it causes issues but brings something to the web that you can’t seem to get anywhere else.

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