Robots are on Twitter, and people pay to have them as followers. That begs the question: What is the worth of a real, live human Twitter follower?
First, the background on fake accounts. A recent New York Times investigation delved into how companies create and sell fabricated Twitter accounts, or bots. These bots are used to do things like automatically retweet posts and inflate people’s follower count.
You don’t have to buy bots to get them as followers. Some are programmed to follow accounts, hoping to lure real people to follow them back. That makes the bot look more believable.
There are some ways to sort through a feed to determine whether a follower is a real account or not. You could use a service like Twitter Audit to run an analysis of a feed and find fake followers. Often fake accounts are fairly obvious to the naked eye. They may post random, spammy content or have incomplete profiles that lack a photo.
All sorts of people have been found to buy fake followers: actors, athletes, even academics. There is both social and financial pressure to have high follower counts, said Jennie Lambert, a social media consultant. “Followers have basically been equated to notoriety,” she said.
Followers can be translated into profit. Celebrities with millions get paid to endorse products on their Twitter feeds. For a journalist, Lambert said having at least 100,000 followers or more could help land a book deal.
Twitter is not alone when it comes to fake accounts and bots. They are on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. And like on Twitter, people pay for these fake followers to boost their numbers.
Carly Severn is KQED’s social media strategist. “The idea of over-inflating or artificially inflating your own perceived influence is nothing new,” Severn said. “People have been doing that for decades, by placing stories about themselves in the paper and paying for people to come to their movie premiere.”
Severn said when it comes to social media, we shouldn’t focus so much on the numbers, but instead on how many people are actually interacting and what they are saying.
“Engagement is something we talk a lot about, and the word gets overused,” Severn said. “But at the end of the day, that’s human conversation.” And that, she said, is what should be valued on social media.
Ian Bogost is a professor of media studies at Georgia Tech, and he wrote a piece for The Atlantic questioning how much we value Twitter followers in general. Bogost said we are not being critical enough about what it means to have a follower, whether that follower is “real” or “fake.”
“People assume when they have a follower on Twitter, that it's not just a real human being,” Bogost said. “But that it is someone who is looking at them and listening to them and responding to them, and they can sell products or services to.”
The news about fake followers is a reminder that all this is not always true. Bogost said he wishes the current furor over fake followers would make people realize that we are reading too much into the number of followers someone has or the likes a post receives.
“We're trying to measure how important something is by counting the number of times people push a button,” Bogost said.
He said this is yet another example of how technology and capitalism are pushing us to reduce everything to a data point you can put a price on.