Twitter Adds Instant Follow Button to Lock In Its Audience

Last Updated May 31, 2011 6:06 PM EDT

Twitter just introduced a new follow button, "making it easy for you to discover the Twitter accounts of your favorite reporters, athletes, celebrities, and other personalities." It now appears on 50 sites, both entertainment (Lady Gaga, for example) and regular media, including such CBS Interactive sites as CNET, CBS News, TechRepublic, ZDNet, and, yes, here on BNET.

This is probably the first and only time my name will be linked even indirectly in a story with that of Lady Gaga. But beyond such bewildering juxtapositions, it's interesting how the Twitter follow button is actually a form of new media role reversal. It's media that really does the following, hoping for a few moments of attention from a fickle public.

Technically, on clicking the Twitter follow button, the reader follows the Twitter account of a writer or entertainer or celebrity or, possibly, an entire media company. But that's an illusion -- a result of many years of habit.

In the past, people subscribed or attended to outlets. You'd watch a group of televisions channels made available to you through subscription and then deal with the schedule they used. Reading a magazine or newspaper was a matter of buying in to the agenda set by publishers. Movies were what you could find in a theater or rental store. People had to follow media.

The real dynamic in today's media and technology worlds is disintegration. You can look for topics that interest you, or watch the television you want when you wish and save money at the same time. (For example, my family just cut the DirecTV cord and are now streaming both Netflix and Hulu Plus for a fraction of what we used to pay.)

No one can count on a consumer going anywhere for content, and certainly not treating any one provider of entertainment or news as a sole source. But the media, like a faded star, craves attention. Now it -- the companies and the individuals involved -- have to follow consumers to wherever they go: Web sites, smartphones, tablets. A click of the follow button is nothing more than a consumer saying, "Yes, I'll consider what you have to offer, though no promises." That's the new dynamic of media.

A big reason for this move is the increasing importance that Facebook has, and its courting of the media. For Twitter to have any chance of eventually making money off visitors, it needs them to continuously returning. The company wants information and entertainment to offer, and for consumers to become accustomed to seeing Twitter as their chosen media outlet.

Following audience by getting them to follow you will become de rigueur in media marketing. I wouldn't be surprised if Facebook eventually came up with a similar approach. This is an industry that must depend on the kindness of strangers. And how can they be kind if you don't make sure you're around them? So, please click the little button below and follow me.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.