My favorite piece of journalism so far this year was just published January 27th over at the New York Times and struck a nerve in a number of places. In an epic-length article entitled “The Follower Factory”, the NYT plumbed the wobbly world of Twitter and those peculiar, insecure users who boost their Follower head count by paying a company actual money to bless them with hundreds of thousands of automated “bot” accounts that pretend they’re fans clinging on to their every tweet, for the purpose of making the paying customers look more popular. Some are piecemeal accounts, with profiles barely filled out. Quite a few are the product of surface-level identity theft, cribbing photos and usernames but with a character altered to make it unique (relatively speaking). They don’t praise you, go forth in your name, act as your “street team”, or interact with you or other humans in any meaningful way. They just Follow. They sit there, shut up, and act like you rule.
Companies such as Devumi cheerfully offer low-price options for ordinary web-surfing rabble like me, but they also bank some major cash selling bot followings by the hundreds of thousands to B-list celebrities, politicians, creators, reality TV dwellers, and others at varying levels of fame. The NYT named a few names I recognize — actor John Leguizamo, Chef Michael Symon, onetime MST3K guest star Kathy Ireland, and film critic Richard Roeper, whose Chicago Sun-Times reviews have been suspended pending their internal review. Of those who responded to requests for comment, a few buyers insisted it wasn’t them personally pushing the buttons, but an assistant or social media manager who bought a hollow audience on their behalf for PR strategy or whatever. Whether their deflections are true or not, boosts of fake fame are kind of sad. Granted, some personalities receive perks and bonuses from their corporate overlords based on the looks of their social media metrics, which means a return on their invidious investment is entirely possible. To them I imagine it’s all part of the Game.
It’s not just a Twitter problem. Other social media spheres have nonhumans mingling among the population and peddling get-rich-quick schemes involving self-esteem injections in macro-
or micropayments. And there are other ways to look more prestigious than you are. I’ve given my thoughts previously on the flaws in the “I’ll follow you if you follow me!” system of conditional relationships, but other options to puff ourselves up are all around if you know where to look. In fact, I have one installed right here on MCC.
We all have our hypocrisies. I carry one in plain sight. No one’s ever asked me about it. If it’s ever influenced anyone’s opinion of me, they’ve never told me so. If you view MCC exclusively on your phone, odds are you may never have scrolled down far enough to see the widgets at the bottom of the page. Desktop PC users can look over to the right and see the offending widget in question: the “Handy Email Alerts!” section.As of this writing the alleged total MCC follower count stands at 5,038. It may or may not sound faintly impressive to a few folks, and is certainly pitiable to others. I’m not jealous, just acknowledging my low place in the pecking order.
Even the most math-challenged reader should be able to detect a discrepancy between that four-digit figure and the average number of Likes and comments on any given entry. If you need a few minutes to scroll backward through some entries and collect data for your scientific analysis, that’s fine. I’ll wait here. Go forth and click on as many entries as you wish. Maybe even read a few?
…you see what I mean? Where are those faithful 5000 on any given day?
Real talk: that number is ridiculously loaded. It does count actual Things, but not what you think it counts. It’s nothing I’ve consciously manipulated or inflated through my own efforts. I’ve never created sock-puppet accounts or surrounded myself with a veritable army of invisible friends or illegitimate descendants of George Glass. I promise I’ve never paid a dime to affect anything of the sort. Frankly, I’ve never been that bored or desperate.
That 5000+ figure breaks down into the following subsets:
* 73 followers of MCC’s Facebook page, which exists largely as a communication tool between me and several magnificent friends that I’ve known since before MCC — mostly online, some offline
* The 38 Twitter users who’ve ever clicked through on a new-entry notification tweet
* The 54 users who, over 5½ years of MCC, have requested email notifications for any replies to a specific entry, and who probably ended up disappointed at the ensuing silence
* Anyone who’s ever joined the email notification list and clicks on new entries when the mood strikes
* Anyone who’s ever joined the email notification list and now deletes notifications because I’ve been demoted to spam
* A clutch of Outlook addresses with garbled, vaguely Southern-Hemisphere names that mysteriously signed up earlier this month
* Active, honest, pure-of-heart WordPress bloggers who intentionally Follow me for me, post on their own sites and check mine out from time to time as a kindness for which I remain grateful every day
* WordPress bloggers who wanted to play the “I’ll follow you if you follow me” game, but never came back when I didn’t play, but also never unsubscribed
* WordPress bloggers who wanted to play the “I’ll follow you if you follow me” game, were glad I chose to play, and then never came back
* WordPress bloggers who follow many, many blogs and can’t possibly read all of them, and I’m categorized as strictly Peanut Gallery level rather than on their coveted shortlist
* Former WordPress bloggers who deleted their sites but for some reason never disappear from the Follower list
* Overseas bots that registered WordPress domains and Liked some random sites as part of some weird scheme till they were caught and exterminated, but live on in our numbers
As a stats junkie I wish I had concrete numbers for every subset. Early into MCC’s history I once dissected the whereabouts of our first 177 Followers out of curiosity. I trust those stats have grown proportionately since then, or more likely distended in ways not in my favor. I’m not sure microanalysis of each listed individual is feasible or mentally healthy after 5½ years and slightly over 1700 entries. (Minor digression: once again I missed a blog milestone, having failed to celebrate MCC entry #1700 when it dropped last week. Whoops.)
The fact remains that not all of my followers are “real”. I take some pride and lose some humility in noting that at least I didn’t pay for any of them, not like that one guy who once sat across the room from Roger Ebert on TV and earned the most pained responses to his feeble defenses of “popcorn films”.
Among other issues and double standards noticeable from this list, the most obvious question raised is: why even bother showing off that optional feature on the widget if it’s as hollow as I think it is? It has an “off” switch. Whither integrity?
Honest answer: I’m not consciously sure. My way of keeping a nominal token in The Game, I guess. Putting on a raggedy domino mask labeled “BLOGGER” across the top and trying to blend in with everyone else who either has a true fan base or merely caters to a roster of digital simulacra.
All I really know in this moment is it’s bothered me for years, long before the NYT exposé. I think I’ve finally discovered a rationalization that’ll placate me for now, though. It’s not a real-time census of Everyone Who Reads MCC. Man, if only. No, it’s more like a rolling counter of everyone who ever acknowledged my existence on any level here on this site, even including bots. But hey, they were bots who validated me in split-second increments, albeit in their own emotionless way. That’s more than I can say for some family members, if I think long and hard and pettily enough.
But I’m not sending the bots a Christmas card. And I’m definitely not tipping them.