The short version: I had a busy day on Twitter today.
The long version: About five years ago I had my first existential crisis with Twitter. An old-school American news editor did not seem to like the thing and could not understand his fellow journalists’ fascination with the product. Some six years into my career at that point, and three years on the platform, this was the first time I had heard an editor express a cogent argument about the negatives of social media use.
We were spending too much time on it at work, he said, repeating an obvious critique. But his idea that we were potentially prioritizing our opinions and personal brands at the expense of the wider newsroom was a new one to me. For years, as a young journalist working at a relatively tech-savvy media outlet, we had been told to do just that. Twitter was a way to get your name out there, build up a reputation that would ultimately reflect well on your news organization and – most importantly – maximize the number of people who would read and reflect on your work.
Fast forward to today and my second existential Twitter crisis, caused by watching a fellow journalist accumulate thousands of fake Twitter followers, seemingly with no one but myself actually noticing. This bothered me for a number of reasons which, in true meta fashion, I have tweeted about.
There's nothing like seeing a fellow journalist buy 5,000+ Twitter followers to make you wonder what the point of this platform actually is.
— Tracy Alloway (@tracyalloway) April 17, 2017
Since we’re talking social media; let’s start with me. I felt that accumulating fake followers undermined other journalists who had worked hard to build up an organic following. It also cast into serious doubt some career advice I had been giving already to younger journalists – namely that they could expand their horizons and job potential by building up influence via Twitter and other platforms. Finally, there’s the more lofty goal. In an age when the credibility of the media is under attack and the lines between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news are increasingly blurred, it seems unlikely that journalists teaming with bots to purchase influence will be well-regarded.
Reactions on Twitter ran the gamut from outrage to virtual shrugs.
While plenty of people seemed to share the concerns I had outlined above, many thought purchasing fake followers to be a legitimate social media strategy. A literal ‘fake it ’till you make it’ approach and one that could have a high likelihood of paying off as your robotic followers were gradually replaced with real ones. One person commented that he knew of people who had been rewarded for fake followings with internships.
Many also pointed out that you can ‘tell’ when someone’s purchasing fake followers. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case and, more importantly, I have rarely seen someone follow up the words “they have so many Twitter followers!” with “but their engagement is very low.” (I would probably hate this person but I would also appreciate their thorough social media analysis). Yes, a lack of retweets or likes contrasted with a huge following suggests some sort of discrepancy but nowadays you can buy engagement too. As I was about to find out.
David Taggart, of the Macro Trader, took it upon himself to teach me.
@tracyalloway BTW you may or may not get 3k retweets on a post in the next 2 days…things like that happen sometimes 🙂
— David Taggart (@DavidTaggart) April 17, 2017
Using a site called Fiverr, David spent $5 dollars to send a bunch of retweets my way. I still don’t understand how this works. David’s description of the site – “For $5 you can freak people out. I love it” – differs somewhat from what Fiverr itself says: “Fiverr is the world’s largest freelance services marketplace for lean entrepreneurs to focus on growth & create a successful business at affordable costs.” Whatever the thing actually does, I can tell you that within a few hours my original tweet had been retweeted a couple thousand times, making it by far my most popular online musing ever and making my Twitter account guilty of the very thing I had been criticizing.
Who are the retweeters, you ask?
Well, there’s Lori Jean-simon, who seems to like both me and a carpet-cleaning company:
Or Donnette Blondell (great name) seems to be really into me and Mexican actresses.
And, of course, more eggs than you can take a crack at counting.
Here’s the thing. Influence has always been a tough concept to capture and the idea that we would be able to do so through a simple number – such as Twitter followers – is simplistic but enticing given the human mind’s need for certainty. I don’t have an easy solution to this. My busy day on Twitter meant that I learned an important lesson in the malleability of one of the world’s most popular social platforms (business model much?) while ultimately becoming the thing I so disliked.
Do I feel better about the journalist buying fake followers knowing that I could so easily do the same? Not really. There is one thing I do take some comfort in, however, and that is the knowledge that one of my real followers deemed me worthy of a little time and a few dollars.
Ultimately, only your real followers would be willing to buy you fake ones.
(Please don’t buy me any more fake followers though. Seriously).