The Curse of the “Follow” Button

Follow Button Nightmare

Just so we’re clear, this haunting illustration is not intended as a superliminal message.

The Followers list of the average WordPress user is comprised largely of other WordPress users. The community is extremely supportive that way. On occasion I’ve even dug a little deeper into those notifications and discovered usernames popping in from Blogger, Tumblr, DeviantArt, YouTube, and other creative sites. If readers are attracted from outside the blogosphere altogether, that’s worth an elaborate victory dance in my book.

Some of that support is provisional, though — offered in hopeful accordance with the implied adage of “I’ll follow you if you follow me!” I’m not sure how many online communities this largely unspoken expectation pervades. When MCC first launched, I kept this guideline in mind, especially in the early era of single-digit daily traffic when any sort of response, human or otherwise, was a welcome change of pace from spending quality time with the Void.

The longer my resulting reading list grew from everyone I Followed in turn, the less I wanted to keep observing that adage. And yes, I mean “reading list”. I tried keeping up with all of them/you, even if the subject matter didn’t interest me in the slightest. It seemed the most honest response. I still read many, many blogs in any given day, but I’ve had to perform some serious triage for the sake of my free time and sanity. I’m unclear on when the “Follow” button became less a simple, literal statement for some users and more of a token to be swapped with passing strangers like marbles or pogs.

For some of my oldest followers…I think using the “Follow” button jinxed them.

Tonight on a whim and a caffeine overdose too hefty for any homebody after 9 p.m., I decided to investigate the top of the MCC follower list and answer a question that popped in my head the other day: how many of those earliest followers have kept their own sites active to this very day? What became of those bloggers who were among the first to nod in my general direction? Are they still out there, plugging away and writing the good write? Or did their disappointment with the experience drive them to abandon ship? Would they later come to regret using that button so freely?

In an attempt at meaningless quantification, and because I love counting things almost as much as I love listing them, I decided to click through the profiles of the first 177 followers on the list and note the date of their most recent post. (Why 177? Because I meant to stop at 100, enthusiastically passed that point without realizing it, and ordered myself to draw an arbitrary line somewhere so I wouldn’t still be awake at 5 a.m.) I’m too tired now to try reshaping the data into a snazzy bar graph, but I do have results to report.

The last posts ever seen by the MCC Original 177 break down according to the following time frames:

Within the last 24 hours: 30
Within the past week: 27
September 1-14: 17
August 2013: 18
July 2013: 2
June 2013: 11
May 2013: 7
April 2013: 4
March 2013: 4
February 2013: 3
January 2013: 2
December 2012: 6
November 2012: 5
October 2012: 2
September 2012: 7
August 2012: 3
Site now defunct: 21
Site overtaken by spammers that I’m fairly certain weren’t there before: 2
Site relocated/restarted under new name/host: 6

* * * * *

Only 41.8% percent of those longtime readers/followers have maintained a presence on the same site since 9/1/2013. Of those, I can claim personal interaction (anything from a courtesy Like to actual dialogue) with only a scant handful. I’ll shoulder plenty of blame for that myself if need be, in all fairness.

Curiously, two of the bumps shown above — September 2012 and December 2012 — coincide with my two Freshly Pressed posts. That particular WordPress Reader section draws an above-average number of eyes and, I presume, a steady influx of WordPress newcomers. I’m sure somewhere out there is a statistician who can tell us the discouragingly high percentage of bloggers who surrender within their first month and go chase another impulse instead, but I don’t have that statistician’s contact info handy. With or without their stamp of approval, I’m willing to bet the FP timing accounts for those mild anomalies.

Long-term users or not, it’s still a shame to see so many people try out the format and then give it up. That’s assuming they walked away willingly, mind you. Theory B: my Follow button is cursed.

That 41.8% consistency rate translates into a failure rate (or tendency for frequent hiatuses between entries) of 58.2%. If we ignore any contraindicating stats and cherry-pick the data that suits us, we could easily make the case for warning people away from that dreaded Follow button, lest the fates strike harshly at the site that means the most to them. Woe betide ye who dare to state your intentions of regular fellowship! Dare ye make pretense of entering these virtual halls on a dedicated basis, at the risk of sacrificing your own writing urges, your creative sparks, or your very livelihood itself? I’d wager some ought to think twice before tossing caution to any of the four winds and clicking that hideous prompt.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if any of this means anything too deep in the final analysis. I dreamed up a list-based project, I went for it, and thus it was written. I’d be curious to hear better interpretations, concurrent analyses, or elegies for those dearly departed.

For those of you who’ve stuck around and meant it, even for the boring entries: thanks very much. Seriously, it means the world and several moons to me.

24 responses

  1. Oh man, I need to do this now. I can I steal your 177 idea and compare it to my own? I am all kinds of curious now, but it’s my guess that those 50/50 ish odds of blog survival are pretty normal. That seems to be the rate of any low-entry-cost hobby. (The high-entry-cost hobbies last a tad longer because of money guilt, πŸ˜‰ )


    • By all means, steal away. Just remember, in accordance with follow-you-follow-me bylaws, I’m entitled to a free plug and 50% of your traffic. πŸ˜€ I look forward to seeing how you’ll make the results visually striking, too!


    • Mine’s gotten bad enough that I’ve come up with a triage system for my email notices. I’ve had to decide which bloggers I want to read hot off the presses, which ones to include in my leisurely daily browsing, and which ones I just want occasional confirmation of life signs.

      It’s not right, though. Reading for fun shouldn’t be this hard!


  2. Coincidentally I did the same thing a month or so ago and came up with roughly similar data. I also have a large number of ‘followers’–a very large number–of people who have just so-called followed my blog in the hopes that I would (a) start reading theirs or (b) click a link to their blog and, since it’s commercial in nature, pass along a small amount of ad-generated revenue. When I look at my own habits I can see that there are around 20 blogs I follow, which means read always and pass along a comment from time to time.
    And–20 is a lot!
    You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of serial ‘likers’ out there too. Once in a while I will just randomly troll through wordpress to see if something strikes my fancy and I have, in time, come to notice some names that pop up a lot; far more than I believe people can actually read. As you probably know, there are some blogs out there–some, not a lot–that are somewhat truly looney in nature, and I do not mean humerous, I mean truly twisted. Yup–same names like those. Clearly they just bring up a bunch of sites and just hit ‘like’ randomly. Oh, well,…whatever πŸ™‚


    • Yeah, there’re some blogs I’ve run across where my only reaction is to back away slowly and forget what I’ve just clicked on. It’s nice that they stopped by my place, but I don’t think a long-term connection would be in our best interests.

      I’ve definitely had my share of serial likers. One time months ago I was “Liked” by an Asian hacker whose most recent post was him sharing a lengthy code that allowed him to auto-Like thousands of Instagram posts in one sitting without actually reading any of them. It was fiendish yet clever, and made me wonder how many of my own “fans” are virtual robots built from that same template.

      To be honest, there’re some days when that bothers me less than others. Whenever I write a post that I needed to write but realize that no one will want to read, I console myself with the thought, “Well, at least That One Guy will ‘Like’ it!”


    • Hah! Okay, when you put it like that, I guess it is a wonder worth acknowledging, that any of them — or us! — stuck with this medium for more than three posts before giving up in favor of online gaming or whatever instead.

      If nothing else, the realization that not all those prospective “readers” will become my long-term groupies should keep me nice ‘n’ humble.


  3. As a relative newcomer (started blogging in May, I think it was), I am already starting to get doubtful about this follow me follow you deal. My original tip to start blogging came from a published author who suggests that one cannot even begin to publish with a major publisher without a platform of 10 to 15 thousand followers. Then WordPress suggests we go read, post comments, follow others.

    Okay. We are all in a big circle, giving each other backrubs. Some publish their own work electronically and maybe get a few bites. But what is really going on here, I wonder. By now, I am not sure if this follower thing is meant to wholly distract would-be authors into the mire of 24/7 internet reading and writing on things they are not at all truly inspired to write about in the first place, a ploy to keep the competition at bay, or simply a myth being circulated upon which no one has checked.

    I appreciate your sharing this thought and your stats, as it does seem most likely that writers are looking for followers, not shopping for good authors, if we were to be honest. We are not necessarily the ones who would ever purchase a book by another blogger, unless perhaps one is truly enthralled by another’s work.

    As you can see, I am starting to think the whole idea of publishers basing a writer’s marketability on the number of blog followers one touts is pretty lame. However, I have found that I enjoy blogging and meeting new people here! So I think I will be around a while, but am trying to balance things a bit so I can actuallly have time to work on The Book. . . the one that is really in my heart, mind and soul.

    Thanks for listening to my long response. I kind of want to apologize now, for being so long-winded. I prefer concise, but tonight I failed at that and have decided to spare the edit time!


    • Sincere apologies for the delayed response on this. I’ve been trying to boil this down so it’s not a 1000-word reply in itself — fodder enough for an entry of its own — but I’m not sure I want it up in the spotlight. And by all means, no apologies necessary for the length of your own words. So many of my entries come and go without a single comment, when rare moments of vocal reactions occur in any given reader, let alone lots of ’em, I throw a little party in my head when I elicit any response here.


      The published author had a point about finding a way to establish a fan base before embarking on a career that will live or die on having fans, but I’m finding that doing so by full immersion into the blogosphere proper — as you were advised to do, with 100% interactive participation and whatnot — would, by my amateur estimation, take 80-hour work weeks in itself to build that minimum level of presence, branding, networking, and reader awareness in a short time frame. I suppose that’s great for those would-be authors with supportive spouses whose careers are already successful enough to cover the entire family budget solo while we chase the dream, but for guys like me who aren’t in a position to shift the burden like that, there’s absolutely no conscientious way to live with that.

      Given the choice between paying the bills or writing hundreds of paragraph-length replies to hundreds of blogs pro bono…I can’t possibly, personally compete under that paradigm. My responsibilities win and my Famous Writer dream loses.

      I like a lot of things about WordPress, especially the fact that it’s become a large-scale support system for creatives from all walks. It can be encouraging and inspiring, but its drawbacks are noticeable over time. An awful lot of community members enjoy that camaraderie so much that it becomes their new and only goal. You can see them writing entry after entry under the assumption that all their readers are fellow WordPress users. Again: great community, wouldn’t wish ’em away, love being here. But if they’re my only audience, then as far as I’m concerned, I’m failing at this. I might as well go back to internet message boards and sharing long thoughts only with five or ten good buddies. The net results wouldn’t be much different. Breaking out beyond the WordPress gates isn’t easy, but I’ve managed it on several isolated occasions. The victory is always temporary but it’s nice to know it can be done. Phase II would be sustainable breakthrough, I guess. Still working on that in my head.

      I’m with you about purchasing from other bloggers: my reading pile has been enormous for literal decades. I don’t add to it unless it’s something I really, really, really want to read. I like to encourage and support others where I can, but buying stories from others to be nice (and not because I genuinely want to read their work) seems dishonest of me to do to them. And even if WordPress somehow defied Sturgeon’s Law and 100% of its users were staggering geniuses, then in all honesty, I still couldn’t be everyone’s customer. I can’t save everyone.

      That’s where I’m at right now — in the same boat as you in a lot of areas. I’ve only been on WordPress sixteen months, after years of sporadic blogging elsewhere, so I’m definitely not the guy to start outlining success formulae for newer users, but I can confirm this much:

      You are not alone. πŸ™‚


      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I am starting to feel better about balance, not be obsessed with blogging, relax a bit. Just a bit! πŸ˜‰ Like you, I already have an 80-hour work week between my business and family, so writing is a desire, a hobby, and the Book is a Bucket List item. Even if I only have it to pass on to my family’s future generations, that will suffice. I hope it reaches more people than that, but it won’t reach Anyone if I don’t spend some time writing it!


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  6. Not sure if this scares me or not… I just started back in April but very quickly became jaded about the follow button. I was so thrilled to get my first few followers, but then they turned out to be selling stuff. I set myself a rule that I would only follow back the people who were actually writing something and weren’t doing the “Make money blogging” spiel. Like you, I try to actually read my reader list. It is almost unmanageable and it now gives me pause before I follow anyone new.

    Sadly, so much of my feeling of success is tied up in the number of followers… I like my blog and like to think I would follow it if I wasn’t me.

    Thanks for some much food for thought. I’m stuffed!


    • I’m pleased to see my mental cooking skills were appreciated. πŸ˜€ Yeah, I used to be much more excited when I received those “xxxxxxx is now following your blog!” emails, but 90% of what I see anymore aren’t fellow writers I can get behind — drive-by spammings, overseas users in languages I don’t know, products ‘n’ services, and my least favorite, the “Make money blogging” crowd in general and Project AWOL in particular. If the notice mentions either of those phrases in the “Check out their posts!” section, that’s an automatic delete-without-clicking.

      I wish I weren’t forced to be choosy, but I need sleep. And a few minutes per day to do things besides reading and writing!


  7. Thank you for sharing this. I started a year ago and had a huge number of followers via being FP’ed, then I went self-hosted and only a small portion of those came over with me. Now, I am back on “regular” WP with a different name and such but still have that good core group plus some new friends. All that matters to me now is the interaction, not the numbers, though it amuses me when I get an “award” right after an obvious spam-blog follow. It’s all good though πŸ™‚ There are some bloggers that I wonder how they are doing and such since they have dropped off the internet mostly; that is something I am still getting used to, especially since not everything has to be “bad”.

    (I was referred here via Rarasaur and am now following…so look for more comments soon πŸ˜‰ )


    • Thanks for stopping in! Rara’s awesome like that, isn’t she? The interactions in particular can be fun to witness.

      I’ve seen a few bloggers switch to self-hosting on, but their traffic and comments always seem to take a dive. Though it’d be nice to have a little more control over such aspects, I’m too addicted to my stats and not prepared to weather such a blow to my ego. Yet. Maybe someday. I can dream. πŸ™‚


  8. Oh no! I all innocently came over here, to check out your blog and now I find you may be cursed!

    Personally I don’t “follow” anyone because I use Feedly instead, I’m hoping this saves me from any bad juju your blog may be oozing! πŸ™‚


    • Feedly might add just enough of a protective anti-curse layer. Remember, if tumbleweeds are drifting across your site six months from now, you were warned!

      I use Feedly for all my non-WP blog reading, but its nice to know someone’s found MCC on it. Thanks for letting me know, and for visiting!


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