The Follower Game

Some thoughts on Twitter, where many people want to have as high a follower-count as possible, and the behaviors that leads to:

— First off, the very name “follower” makes me cringe. Yes, it’s meant to just indicate that your follower is “following” your updates; but it also brings to mind the images of cult-members, who are the obedient followers of their leaders. “Subscribers” would have been just as accurate, and less of a loaded term.

— Second: you can tell who’s genuinely famous (for whatever definition of “famous” you want to use) by looking at a Twitter account’s ratio of following to followers. Two accounts may both have the same high number of followers — say, 20,000 — but if account A is following 400 people and account B is following 19,000, you can rest assured that account A is a genuine celebrity of some kind. (Again, “celebrity” may simply mean something like “Robert E. Lee impersonator known to all Civil War reenactors in the D.C. metro area”.)

— So what does that say about account B? Yes, that person could genuinely be famous, and happen to also reciprocate everyone who follows him or her by following them all back. But more likely, that person has built their following through carefully following a lot of people, and dropping the ones who don’t follow them back. Because after all, you never want the ratio to get too lopsided in the other direction: someone who’s following 10,000 people but only has 200 followers will look like a loser to many people.

— The least engaging form of advertising on Twitter I’ve seen is when someone just follows you out of the blue without even sending you a tweet to say “Hey”. They’re of course hoping you’ll read their profile and tweets, buy their products, and follow them back.

— And some people will: the #TeamFollowBack (or #TeamFB) phenomenon is a strange one in which people publicly declare in their profiles that they will follow back anyone who follows them, no questions asked.

— Which leads to the question: why do these people even want all these followers? Unless you’re a business hoping to raise awareness of your products and brand, it’s hard to see why you want a bunch of strangers on Twitter to link to your account, with nothing more meaningful happening between the two of you than that. Team FollowBack people seem to be obsessed with their follower counts purely for the sake of the number. (Speaking of cults…!)

— As for the worth of a Twitter follower, that’s not clear to me either. The Consensus Bureau has a Twitter account (@ConsensusBureau), but I get far more engagement with my shameless ads for it through my Facebook account — where people who actually know me are — than I do through Twitter, where any tweet I issue is drowned out in the never-ending flood of other tweets on everyone else’s feed. The only way I’ve found to be sure the message is being received is to tweet directly at a follower, and that takes time, if I want to do it for each and every follower.

(And yes, I did blog earlier that the advantage of Twitter over Facebook was that it allows you to interact with strangers. But again, I’m finding that takes a definite investment of time; Facebook is way easier, since you already know all your “friends” on Facebook in real life.)

— A final point about the dubious value of Twitter followers: lots of people will make fake ones for you, which makes you wonder who’s fooling whom on Twitter. There was a great discussion of this in the New York “Times” a few months ago:

It even mentions a free app that claims it can tell you how many of a person’s followers are legit:

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