Tweetenfreude: The psychology of the hate-follow

You know that person who pops up in your Twitter feed who is yet again tweeting another quote from his latest book. Or maybe it’s the woman you vaguely know through work who keeps tweeting out her lunchtime workout stats, or the guy who keeps picking stupid Twitter fights?

These people get under your skin: They behave in ways you never would in real life — or even on Twitter for that matter — and reading their tweets makes you want to reach through your computer screen and slap them. And yet you continue to follow them, stewing as you do in your judgmental rage juices.

That, friends, is what we call the “hate-follow.”

The art of the hate-follow is one that isn’t often openly discussed, but hate following is a prevalent practice. There are no official statistics in the matter, but Digiday suspects the hate-follow is even more common in the insular worlds of digital media and advertising, where there’s no shortage of clueless blowhards and shameless personal-brand builders. Let’s put it this way: If hate-following is your thing, better be in the agency or media business than, say, education.

“At least once a day, I look at Twitter and think, ‘How did I ever start following this person? I can’t believe I’m following this person,’” shared an anonymous agency creative. “There are absolutely people I follow solely because when I see them in my stream, I know they are going to infuriate me.”

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The types of people we love to hate
After speaking with several different agency folks about why they hate-follow and who they hate-follow, it’s clear there are several different varieties and flavors of the hate-follow. In keeping with the spirit of hate-following, we gave most of these enraged hate-followers anonymity in exchange for the opportunity to bare their souls.

There’s Captain Obvious who tweets painfully evident insights but presents them as groundbreaking revelations. There is the Pedagogue who uses Twitter to deliver condescending lectures to his admiring Twitter flock. There’s the all-too-familiar Social Media Guru — and his close relative, the Personal Brand King. The Oversharer who tweets excessively about things that many of us deem too personal to broadcast on Twitter, like big life decisions or money issues or just very mundane things that similarly don’t need to be shared.

“He threatens people, he lashes out at people, he slams entire companies, by name, for no reason, and then deflates immediately when anyone calls him out on it,” shared one anonymous female creative about her hate follow du jour. “He also constantly tweets meaningless articles and labels them ‘IMPORTANT,’ which is blissfully enraging –  it’s clinically fascinating to see so much self-importance and so little self-awareness in one permatweeting bubble.”

Another anonymous agency exec shared that the common denominator of all the people he hate-follows is that they all masquerade arrogance as wisdom.

“These are often the industry people who spend so much time building their own personal brands that you wonder when they have time to do any actual work,” said the agency exec.

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To hate-follow or not to follow, that is the question.
The logical question about hate-following is why wouldn’t you just not follow the person if they — and their tweets — really are that insufferable. The first and most common justification is a healthy dose of schadenfreude.

“You have to despise this person just enough to keep on eye on them, hoping they eventually go down in social media flames,” explained Darryl Ohrt, global creative director at Mash+Studio.

The anonymous male creative, who freely admits his hate-following may be a bit unhealthy, said he never unfollows anyone and wonders if his compulsion to hate-follow is the result of “some kind of pathology”:

“I don’t know why I do it, because it’s simple enough to avoid these people — there is an unfollow button, but I keep coming back for more,” he said. “Maybe it’s familiarity — I see in these people’s traits and tendencies I myself have and can’t stand; so it’s a reassuring recognition mixed with the contempt, which raises the very real possibility that I am other people’s hate-follow, which is fun to think about.”

According to Dr. Jay Van Bavel, assistant professor of social psychology at New York University, it makes sense that people hate-follow rather than just unfollow.

“If it really is motivated by ‘hate,’ the reason may be because hate is associated with ‘approach motivation,’” or a desire to experience a positive outcome, said Van Bavel. “We have unpublished research in our lab showing that people feel the need to confront people or issues that they hate, whereas they avoid things they merely dislike.”

Van Bavel offered a few other possible psychological explanations for what motivates hate-following, including schadenfreude, downward social comparison (making ourselves feel good by looking down on others) and trying to understand others’ intentions, which he said is especially true of individuals or groups who threaten our interests.

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The possible positive side-effects of hate-following
While it may seem like a negative habit to follow people you can’t stand, it seems there may be some benefits to it.

“On a good day, it can feel like a healthy corrective or a palette cleanser after a frustrating day at work — it’s a nice reminder not to take everything so seriously,” said the agency exec.

According to the female creative, she sees hate-following as sometimes having a prophylactic effect.

“Part of me feels like it gives us something to brace against, it keeps us honest,” she said. “If we only followed people who tweeted things that made us happy or confirmed our worldview, we would become complacent, smug and isolated — we would become the people we hate-follow.”

The doctor is out on this one, however. Van Bavel said it’s hard to really say if hate-following is healthy or not.

“On one hand, it might make people feel better in the short term or even come to see the perspective of a foe,” he said. “On the other, if it fuels an existing unhealthy obsession, then I doubt it’s healthy.”

Gifs are from “Stick figure doom”