Sprinklers and Vacuums: Two Types of Social Media Users

There are two types of communicators on the Internet. Two very different groups of people that tend to show up in most social media conversations. There are those who give and those who take.

I call them “sprinklers” and “vacuums.” And knowing which one you’re dealing with can make a world of difference.

Photo credit: Siddy Lam (Creative Commons)


Sprinklers understand the value of giving. They don’t have the time or opportunity (what with ADHD and the interruptive nature of banner ads and television) to do more than share a bite-sized piece of data. They relish the opportunity to share.

Sprinklers are generous. They refresh with what little time they have to do so.


Vacuums, as you already know, suck. In every sense of the word.

Vacuums take. Every chance they get, they’re looking to soak up, to inhale, to digest. There’s a world full of content, and they want it all for themselves.

There is nothing necessarily bad about wanting to learn or grow or gain new information. The problem is that these people can consume so much that they begin to view every conversation as a means to an end. And that end does not include contributing something.

Vacuums aren’t jerks, necessarily. They’re just selfish.

Telling the difference

If you were at a cocktail party, it might take you a minute to notice a sprinkler. They tend to be subtle. They take their time. They listen. But you’ll know one when you find one, because they’ll share.

These are the people on your blog who leave thoughtful comments, who email you just to say “thanks,” who really, truly care. And you can tell.

Vacuums, on the other hand, would be noticeable almost immediately. They’re always looking over your shoulder, scared of missing the “next best thing.” They introduce themselves and probably name-drop a time or two.

Vacuums immediately ask you not about who you are, but rather what you’ve done. They ask questions but only to test, to provoke. You know what they’re doing. They’re not showing interest. They’re comparing.

Which will you be?

Every day, we have the opportunity to give a little or take a little. Whether or not you end up being a vacuum or a sprinkler is a matter of time and habit.

These types of voices manifest not only in social settings, but also in business.

If you’ve built a tribe of vacuums, don’t expect to profit off of them. Sure, they’ll download your free eBook and subscribe to free updates, but they don’t actually care about you. They just want handouts.

Sprinklers, on the other hand, are giving, even when you don’t ask. They’re the ones who get the free version and pay for the premium, even though they don’t have to. They’re not just fans; they’re followers.

They show respect and gratitude. It’s not grandiose or over the top — little by little, they show you love.

You can be intentional

Of course, everyone wants to know how to attract the sprinklers and keep the vacuums away. The latter is tough, but the former is easy. If you want more gracious, giving people in your tribe, you have to do one very simple thing.

Go first.

Want more friends? Be one.

Want more love? Give it.

You will attract what you put out there. It’s basic reaping and sowing. So, social media user… start sprinkling.

107 thoughts on “Sprinklers and Vacuums: Two Types of Social Media Users

  1. A solid reminder both for the digital realm and the “real” realm, intentional giving without expecting anything in return. Love it.

  2. Thanks for this! It really resonated with me, because I so want to give more than I take. Sometimes in the busyness of life, it’s easy to be too rushed to sprinkle love and encouragement wherever possible. Thank you for this reminder!

  3. Love this analogy! I’ve always considered the vacuums vampires, though, because they suck people dry before moving on.

  4. That’s such a beautiful post Jeff, and so very true!

    We do come across such people so often in our day to day lives, that it’s not funny. And you put it so rightly in the end, that if we want more sprinklers, we need to be the first ones to make the moves. I remember a quote of St. Francis Of Assisi- “For it is in giving that we receive.”- that fits in so well here.

    Thanks for sharing and reminding all of us about this simple thing 🙂

  5. Love your post…so, so true! Happy to say, I am a sprinkler! Sad to say that the vacuums would
    not consider themselves to be anything but talented and entertaining and all things wonderful!

    PS…I call them “Bull Dozers!”

  6. Then there are those of us who are trying to figure all this out.  Loved this analogy and the reaping and sowing reminder, Jeff!

  7. Thanks, Jeff…great post!  I SO want to be a sprinkler in all areas of my life, but (no excuse, I know) at times, I feel so inundated with the vacuums around me, I tend to fall back on “I have nothing to give”, instead of reaching more deeply within.  This was a much-needed prod in the “no-more-taking-the-easy-way-out” direction.  

    (I always think of Tom Hanks in the movie, “Joe Vs. The Volcano” around the “vacuum” people in my life: “I can feel them sucking the juice out of my eyeballs…suck, suck, SUCK!!”)

  8. Perfect way to describe it. I don’t want to be a vacuum. I enjoy Social Media, because I think it’s a great place to build relationships with like minded and not-so like minded people. Being a sprinkler is the best option.

  9. What an excellent post Jeff! Everything you said is true. I would add another category. These people are not exactly wolves in sheeps clothing, but again you’re a means to an end. You leave a comment on their work lets say and they leave a comment on yours – once. They then want to friend you on facebook. Ever after they bombard your wall with their self promoting stuff ad nauseum. They were never interested in you, they just wanted your space! Eventually I remove such people. They think I won’t, especially if they’re Christians, but I will and do.

  10. thanks Jeff, this was a good reminder for me to be careful. as you are exampling to me, and as other people in my life who have earned my respect, they lead me by example. and that’s what I want to do, but if I’m not careful, my example can lead the wrong way.

    again, thanks for another honest heart-digging post.

  11. I’ve really enjoyed your blog and have been reading it for some time. Sooo, I added you to my, “Places I like on the Web” on my blog. (Maybe I’ll be a little sprinkler today.)

  12. Jeff, you were right. I definitely liked this post! 

    This is a great analogy to keep in mind whether you are a newbie or a veteran in social media, marketing… this just applies to life and relationships of any kind. Your post also hits on the concept of quality vs. quantity. I would rather have a small following of sprinklers than a large following of vacuums. Your point about having to go first really hit home with me. Go the extra mile and the rewards will come.
    Have a great weekend, and thanks for another timely post. 

  13. What an interesting perspective.  Are these the only two possible positions, or is there a middle ground?  I know that at the least, my social media strategy has always been based around this idea of sprinkling, and connecting with others, in order to have connections developed in the long-term.

    1. Probably a middle ground. Most of us float somewhere in between. But for the sake of making a point, I dichotomized. I wanted people to feel like they had to choose.

  14. Jeff, love this post.  I definitely have a tribe of sprinklers for which I am grateful.  Their words of encouragement in their comments are a blessing to me.  BTW, I have followed most all the advice you give on this blog over the past couple months and my essay just got selected as a finalist for Real Simple Magazine’s blogger contest.  I am thrilled.  Thank you!

  15. Good post Jeff, great symbolism. I like to be a sprinkler too if I can with what I have. 

    I also need others to sprinkle into my life too, and you do that through your writing. 
    I also have people who some would describe as ‘Klingons’. They just seem to cling on to you and suck the life out of you. 

    May the reservoir be full for you!

  16. A blast from my past….I was blasted with the same advice over 30 years ago during my ‘it’s all about me’ days. “If you want friends, you have to be a friend!” Profound advice then…perfect reminder now. Sincerely appreciate your posts, young man! 🙂

  17. I basically agree with your point.  These two types of people can be seen in most walks of life.  People who only take and only see a “relationship” with you as a means to an end, versus those who care about actual relationship and give and take.  Every one can end up feeling hurt and used by the former and built up and enriched by the latter.
    But I wonder if you’re not judging the “vacuums” a little harshly.  Perhaps, if you are offering something for free and people take that thing without offering anything in return, then they’ve understood the meaning of free.   They may be missing the social part of social media and so end up coming across as selfish.  But at the same time if you’re putting content out there for people to take, it can’t really come as a surprise when they take it.
    In my own case I am a teacher and can recognize these two types in my students (and colleagues for that matter).  There are those students who always want something from you and never give anything back, least of all thanks.  There are others who enter into relationship and I end up learning as much from them as I hope I am teaching.  I can’t give equal time to everyone so in some ways the students that get the most attention are self-selecting.  And of course it is those who give something in return.  But I can’t ignore everyone else just because they only want to take my time and knowledge.  I am also aware that the power relationship involved means those that don’t give anything back may not feel they have anything to give. 
    I guess your point was to highlight that it is better to be a “sprinkler” and that is what we should all aim to be, rather than to judge “vacuums”?  But it made me think about how to be gracious towards those people who do only want to take, because if you are offering something which people want, you will always come across those sorts of people.   

  18. When you describe the “look over their shoulder” guy, I thought of last night after a football game. I did that yesterday to a person because I didn’t want to miss out on a conversation with another person. You nailed me and my poor behavior in your description. I think that was an aberration and hopefully I’ve gained enough exposure to people like you and your generous spirit to inoculate my soul against the Scrooge virus that hits me in my weaker moments.

  19. Love this!  So many people need to hear:  
    “You have to go first.You want more friends? Be one. You want more love? Give it.
    You will attract what you put out there. It’s basic reaping and sowing.”

    I’d like to think I’m a sprinkler, but I know I have vacuum tendencies as well.  For instance, I never buy premium versions of things if a free one will do.  But then again, I’m also cheap…This is great stuff!

  20. Super good Jeff.  I heard John Maxwell say that his goal in life is to add value to as many people’s lives as he can.  I think of it as a motivational shift from “what can I get from this” to “what can I give to this.”  If you are a part of the upside down Kingdom then you benefit always from giving whether internally or eventually outwardly.  “give and it shall be given unto you.”

  21. Thanks for this post, Jeff. A wise lady told me a long time ago that the world is made up of givers and takers, but I think your analogy is much more expressive, enjoyed reading it.

  22. That’s a  really nice point you’ve made there Jeff. I feel that the current generation of humans is slowly warming up to the idea of giving more and more..That’s why I think philanthropy is fast catching on as the newest trend around..

  23. I couldn’t agree more Jeff! I want to be more intentional about being a sprinkler in my life:)

  24. Jeff, very nice analogy!  I would like to think of myself as a recovering vacuum, well maybe as a vacuum that sprinkled a bit here and there 😉  I think for so many people, it just may take some time to truly get acquainted with what social is, and how to be social, how to share, continually without expecting a return.

  25. Like a lot of your readers, sometimes I can be a vacuum and sometimes a sprinkler (and sometimes a bulldozer). Striving for balance in all aspects of our lives (work/play or give/take or listen/talk) isn’t a bad goal. Thanks for the thoughtful post and all of your other good work.

  26. I repair vacuums on the side.  People get cranky when their vacuum won’t suck.  Should I hand them a sprinkler instead?

    Great post!!  I may print it on the back side of my business card!

  27. Jeff, I liked this one. Also served as a bit of a reminder to stay away form the “vacuums.” I view them as mostly negative people. They take, and take, and take without every really giving anything in return. (At least, I think we’re talking about he same type of person).

    To me, this part makes the most sense: “You will attract what you put out there.”

    So seek to be helpful first, and you’ll build a solid foundation that way. It might take a little bit longer, but that’s ok (in my opinion).

    1. Ricardo, while it’s good to identify what/who you’re dealing with, I don’t think that this excuses us from generosity. We just need to recalibrate our expectations when dealing with a vacuum.

  28. This word intentional is one I have been seeing a lot more the past couple years.  I love it and have been living intentionally recently in many areas.  Intentional is to have courage, discipline, purpose, and a passion behind it.  Its not easy but it reaps rewards. 

    Third time I read this post today,  still great!!!

    1. Fabulous! I applaud you!  Intention matters, absolutely. I know it’s so easy to make well-meaning mistakes. Courage, passion, and purpose for one may come across as something entirely different to someone else. I think if we are generous in giving the benefit of the doubt we can encourage bravery and give someone the opportunity to bloom. Reaching a hand to help another definitely reaps rewards, both for them, and for ourselves.

  29. Hey Jeff,

    This made me think of the documentary I was watching yesterday: “The Genius of Charles Darwin”. Richard Dawkins talks about the selfish gene, and how it explains altruism – especially in kin relationships. 

    Would that somewhat explain how some people are more driven towards giving than others?

    I’m still pondering this in my head. How do you make sense of why there are those two different types of people?I wish you a great day :-)Matt

    1. I’m not familiar with that, but I tend to take a more pragmatic approach. The difference, quite frankly, is practice. Not genetics or personality. It’s a matter of a will to be generous (or selfish).

  30. Fantastic article. I’m going to try to make an effort to do more sprinkling in my life. Great reminder!

  31. Great article, as usual. I must admit that I share every one of your posts. I do soak them up, but I always share. There is not a single one I have not found valuable. I share posts by many bloggers. I feel I’ve discovered a gold mine here on twitter! That being said, I rarely have commented. Not because I can’t be bothered, but much more likely because I wasn’t ready or that I have under-valued my opinion. I do respond to every new friend. I do respond to every message from everyone. There is so much to learn. The few times I’ve been brave enough to comment, I have felt so proud of myself for making the effort – always eager for a response and to engage. Rarely do they come and I am becoming more confident in just finding my own pace and honouring myself. I do not judge or label others, especially when I do not understand them. I would not deign to call myself a sprinkler… but certianly don’t like the idea of being slotted in the vacuum category either!

  32. I was going to post some spoofy name-droppy thing about me and George Bernard Shaw talking to Oscar Wilde the other day, but I figured you’d catch on that I was lying, so I’ll cut to the truth….

    YOU ROCK, JEFF!!  I love what you’re doing with your work and your website.  You inspire me to keep my head on straight and keep trying to do my best, not just in writing, but in life.  

    To the vacuums who may frequent this site….. Go somewhere else.  There’s no dirt here.  Jeff’s the real deal, and he’s clean.

  33. Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

  34. Thoughtful post, Jeff.

    It can be hard going sometimes, being a sprinkler, because the rewards aren’t guaranteed. But if your values are that it’s better to give than receive, then you just have to keep at it – despite each uncommented upon blog post, each unRT tweet, and so on. The reward is knowing you’re actively contributing and not just passively consuming.

  35. Great post here, Jeff! We all have the ability to be vacuums or sprinklers. We are selfish creatures, so it makes sense why so many are vacuums. But there is so much more joy found in being a sprinkler, both online and off. I’m learning it is much better to give than receive..

  36. LOL!! @ “If you’ve built a tribe of vacuums” *forming a cross with both index fingers while yelling…STAY AWAY!!* Another great post Jeff!

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