I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. I see - and have increasingly experienced - many benefits to its use, especially with respect to its propensity to foster meaningful new connections with consequential strangers and acquaintances. However, I am becoming increasingly cynical about some of the practices that are evolving, particularly with respect to the inflated numbers - and diminished value - of followers on Twitter. I recently encountered one especially egregious example of follower aggrandizement, essentially amounting to a flagrant commoditization of followers.
In The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore present a model that encompasses two countervailing trends: customization - where increasing differentiation leads to higher value - and commoditization - where decreasing differentiation leads to lower value. I'll note in passing that the references to theatre and stage are eerily prescient of the explosive growth of social media in general and Twitter in particular, but will press on with the ways that customization and commoditization apply to Twitter. Twitter offers many mechanisms for customization - I can choose a username (e.g., @gumption), a skin or background for the homepage, a profile that can include a full name, web page and brief bio, a set of other users I'm following (which I like to refer to as my followees) and a set of lists to organize or categorize those users. The profile of anyone I'm following, in turn, lists me as a follower. The short (140-character) text messages (tweets) posted by the people I'm following are all collected in my tweetstream, and my tweets show up in the tweetstreams of all of my followers.
My followers become, in effect, my [potential] witnesses, and as I have written earlier, the public display of followers makes Twitter a witness projection program (for better and for worse). The number of followers one accumulates can give rise to a sense of micro-celebrity and some people who have achieved celebrity through other mechanisms - such as Ashton Kutcher, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres - can achieve macro-celebrity, amassing millions of Twitter followers. The web service WeFollow.com now lists 158 Twitter users - including both individuals and organizations - who have accumulated at least 1 million Twitter followers. I was surprised to discover that @JuliaAllison, who was featured in a July 2008 Wired story, Internet Famous: Julia Allison and the Secrets of Self-Promotion, was not among those listed; she has "only" 17,000 followers.
Some question the authenticity of [some] followers, especially among Twitter users with millions of followers. Anil Dash (@anildash) makes a pretty compelling argument that no one really has a million Twitter followers:
Twitter accounts that have over half a million followers listed actually represent (at most) a few hundred thousand people who've chosen to become organic followers of someone, along with millions who are passively along for the ride. Some of them are inactive users, some are spammers, some just ignore the noise of the accounts that don't interest them, like spam in an email inbox. But they can't count as "followers" in any meaningful sense.
So even if the people and organizations at the top of the Twitterati pyramid have "only" a few hundred thousand followers, they are clearly more successful in attracting tweetworthy attention than others. A June 2009 Guardian article reported that Evan Weaver, Twitter's lead engineer in its services team, claimed that the average Twitter user has 126 followers (or did at that time). A more recent report on New Data on Twitter's Users and Engagement by RJMetrics (@RJMetrics) estimates that 25% of of the 75 million Twitter accounts have no followers (and 40% have never posted a single tweet ... and 80% have posted fewer than 10 tweets) ... suggesting that there are a large number of "dead" accounts, or accounts used only for "listening", a mode of Twitter use that Kate Crawford (@KateCrawford) explores in more depth in Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media [Journal of Media & Culture Studies, 23 (4), 525-535].
In a paper to be presented at CSCW 2010, Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams, Mor Naaman (@informor) and his colleagues analyzed the tweetstreams of 350 randomly selected users, and distinguish between Meformers - Twitter users who tend to share information about themselves, e.g., "tired and upset" - and Informers - users who share information on other people, places and things, typically including a URL - and report that Informers tend to have more friends [= followees] (Median=131) and followers (Median=112) than Meformers (Median=61, Median=42). I do not believe they included any celebrities in their dataset, but suspect some celebrities would represent outliers for the Meformer category.
One of the brainstorming strategies we used at Accenture Technology Labs for prognosticating technological innovations, applications and implications was to see what kinds of benefits very successful people and businesses were enjoying, and imagine how technology could be used to replicate or approximate some of those benefits for people and businesses that were not quite as successful [yet]. So I experienced a mixture of delight and cynicism when I discovered a new service that makes it easier than ever before to become famous for being famous ... or to accumulate Twitter followers by automatically following other Twitter users.
A few weeks ago, I received a series of email notifications about Twitter users who had started following me that each listed 10,000+ followers and 10,000+ followees. This seemed odd, as most of the people that I follow who have 10,000+ followers have far fewer followees (by at least one, and often several, orders of magnitude). Being curious about these stats, I perused the tweetstream of one of these new followers, and saw references to a new "reciprocal following" web service twitterway.net, which at the time redirected to followe.rs (but now fronts SpeedFollo.ws ... more on that in a moment). The promotional video on the site claims "There Has Never been an Easier Way to Build a MASSIVE Following on Twitter" and promises "To Make You a BOATLOAD of Cash!". It invites you to join, and then invite your Twitter followers to join, or to sign up for the automated referral option through which followe.rs will post periodic invitations to join the system in your tweetstream. Once you join, you automatically follow everyone else who has already joined, and everyone else who has already joined will automatically be added to your list of Twitter followers. The video claims that "For ONLY $1!", "You Will Get Paid $10 Per Month for Every One [of your Twitter followers] That Joins", leading me to suspect that this may be a Ponzi scheme, and so my description of followe.rs here should be taken as a cautionary critique of the service rather than an invitation or endorsement.
I didn't think to grab a screenshot of the tweetstream of the followe.rs member at the time (early January), and but I'll include a screenshot of another followe.rs member's tweetstream below. The automated messages now include references to Cause Marketing and Non Profits ... perhaps this is an "enhancement" added after the Haitian earthquake, or perhaps followe.rs enables individual customization of automated messages for each member, as I don't recall these sorts of appeals when I first checked it out. It's interesting to note that there are no explicit references to URLs containing "followe.rs"; presumably, these are concealed behind the bit.ly URLs used:
As I mentioned above, twitterway.net now appears to redirect to SpeedFollo.ws. The video on this site features the creator, Kimball Roundy, shown below, promoting the service as a way to get "REAL, Targeted Twitter Followers who are actually interested in what you have to say", and issuing the ironic warning to spammers to not even try to sign up for the service:
From what I can gather from the web site, the new "enhancement" that has been added in the past few weeks is a 12-second video members can upload to their homepage, telling visitors why they should follow them ... as though perusing their tweetstream would not be sufficient evidence for making well-informed judgments regarding followability ... and reminding me of a quote by a Jazz musician I once heard: "If you have to say you're cool, you ain't." Also, instead of asking for and promising to dole out money, the new system talks about credits and is "100% free" ... although there are "pro" and "elite" membership levels that may require some kind of larger investment. As with my description of followe.rs, my description of speedfollo.ws should be taken as a cautionary critique of the service rather than an invitation or endorsement.
I found a tweetstream for a SpeedFollo.ws member, and am including a screenshot below. It's interesting how the automated messages employ some minor variations on the directed invitations they post:
Based on the stats shown for some of these recent followers, the number of auto-followers on followe.rs appears to have surpassed 10,000 ... the threshold mentioned a few months ago in a New York Times article on Tweeting for Dollars:
Twitter users who sign up to send ads to their network of friends and followers will get paid based on various individual metrics, like a person’s reach on Twitter, the ratio of friends to followers, length of time on Twitter and, of course, the number of followers. An active Twitter user with 10,000 followers could make $25 to $35 per commercial tweet, Mr. Murphy [founder and chief executive of Izea, the marketing company behind a pay-per-post service that enables companies to pay bloggers for every post about their product or service] said.
A more recent - and more lighthearted - review by Viralogy (@Viralogy) of some of the pay-for-tweet services in Tweet For a Living: What You Can Buy by Tweeting offers some examples of what top celebrity tweeters might be able to rake in if they wanted to convert their massive following on Twitter into boatloads of cash.
The automation of reciprocal followership on followe.rs may be an extreme case, and yet it is consistent with what appears to be a common presumption or expectation of reciprocity on the part of some Twitter users - if I follow you, you should follow me. Another Twitter user who recently started following me has adopted a manual approach to explicitly requesting reciprocity from his recent followees in his tweetstream:
Of course, these explicit appeals to extrinsic motivations for public displays of attention to social media streams are not restricted to Twitter. I've also encountered enticements - on Twitter - for people to post comments on blogs:
There are many, somewhat more subtle, methods that people use for promoting themselves and increasing or rewarding their followers on Twitter. For example, I recently saw a tweet referencing a Fast Company article listing Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter, drawn from a report by viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella (@danzarella). [Update: Dan just posted a new, relevant blog entry: Data Shows that Self-Reference Does Not Get Followers.] In a recent peer-reviewed scientific paper on Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter, social media researcher danah boyd (@zephoria) and her colleagues identified a number of potential motivations behind retweeting (i.e., re-posting Twitter updates originally posted by others), including the ego retweet:
Ego retweets are when people retweet messages that refer to them. Some see this as “narcissistic” or “self-serving,” while others see it as a way of giving credit to and appreciating the person talking about them.
Although I am not an altruism skeptic, I do think that both interpretations of ego retweets reflect a failure to follow Don Miguel Ruiz' second agreement, don't take anything personally. Even when the person publicly thanking someone for a retweet is consciously motivated by a genuine feeling of appreciation, I believe it still represents an unconscious presumption that the retweeter is re-posting the message for reasons relating to the original (or most recent) poster rather than the content of the message itself ... ergo, ego: in either case, it's all about me.
Aside from the philosophical, psychological or social implications of the these ego retweeting practices, on a practical basis, they don't scale. If I publicly thank you for retweeting a reference to me, and my tweet of thanks includes a reference to you, should you then publicly thank me ... and so on? In an effort to inject a little levity into this lengthy discussion, I've created a semi-fictitious scenario to dramatize (or humorize) this:
In the interest of full disclosure, I tried a variation on ego retweeting once, posting a message thanking Melissa Allison (@CoffeeCity), a Seattle Times reporter who had written a blog post referencing one of my blog posts:
However, I felt so uncomfortable and self-conscious about what I immediately afterward judged to be a self-serving and indirectly self-referential post, that I have not tried it again. That said, I do thank people for blog comments when I respond to their comments on my blog, and occasionally send emails or more private, direct messages via Twitter to thank them (especially if there has been a significant delay in my response). And I enjoy receiving emails and direct messages from people who have read my blogs or comments. But these all seem qualitatively different from publicly thanking people for a retweet, in part, perhaps, because someone has taken the time to add something to the conversation.
Another popular method for increasing followers is the #FollowFriday (#ff) phenomenon, a sort of pass-along followship (somewhat akin to pass-along readership in print media), whereby a Twitter user will recommend other Twitter users that his/her followers should also follow. While I suspect that genuine appreciation for others is often a conscious motivation for this practice - "hey, these other tweeters are interesting, you should follow them too!" - it also strikes me as somewhat presumptuous. Why should I follow someone just because someone I follow recommends them (outside of any other context besides it being #ff)? If I follow you, and you follow someone else you think is interesting, you'll probably retweet some of the interesting messages that person tweets ... and if a critical mass of those tweets seem interesting to me, too, then I will follow that person (without any #ff prompting) in a more natural or organic way.
I see this as yet another mechanism for indirectly increasing one's followers. I imagine there are a great deal of reciprocal #FollowFriday recommendations: if I include you in my #ff list this week, you are more likely to include me in your #ff next week, and we both gain more followers. And if you publicly thank me for the #ff this week - "thanks for the follow!" - and I publicly thank you for the #ff next week, well, then we both benefit from yet another dimension of co-promotional activity. For the record, I have never posted a #ff tweet.
So why am I taking these automated and semi-automated reciprocal following systems, and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations for following, so personally ... or, at least, so seriously? This could all be simply a manifestation of academics' aversion to shameless self-promotion (well chronicled recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education). Or it could be a symptom of my ongoing struggle against praise addiction. In any case, it is nearly always the case that any time I am irritated by something, it reflects something in myself that I am hiding, repressing or denying, and so my scree above is as much an effort to sort through the motivations behind my own actions as anyone else's.
One of the features I like about Twitter is that, unlike most other online social networking services (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace), no reciprocity is required - I can follow someone without them having to agree to being my "friend" or "contact" (people with protected tweets have to agree to let me follow them, but do not have to reciprocate by following me back). danah boyd recently offered some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook status updates on her blog, in which she differentiates the social graph directionality and conversational mechanisms between the two services (Twitter: directed; Facebook: undirected) and notes that:
What makes Twitter work differently than Facebook has to do with the ways in which people can navigate status and power, follow people who don't follow them, at-reply strangers and begin conversations that are fundamentally about two individuals owning their outreach as part of who they are. It's not about entering another's more private sphere (e.g., their Facebook profile). It's about speaking in public with a targeted audience explicitly stated.
I believe the very idea of having followers, linked to a single online identity (Twitter username), which has an increasingly pervasive reach, will foster a stronger sense of online responsibility and accountability. I don't know of any studies that show this, but I suspect that the online disinhibition effect, especially the dissociative anonymity factor, diminishes with the strength of one's association with a particular online identity. One of the reasons that people create multiple personas online is to experiment with and/or provide an expression for specific aspects of themselves they'd rather not have associated with themselves in general. We will still have flame wars, of course, but I think that as the number of a user's followers grows, I'd like to think that this will encourage him/her to be more impeccable with his/her words (Don Miguel Ruiz' first agreement).
So if I think that having followers is a good thing, what's my problem? The "systems" - human or mechanized - described above lead to a commodization - and consequent devaluation - of following and followers. On the one hand, it doesn't matter that much to me personally: I don't have many followers, and I'm not actively seeking more followers ... and after this blog post, I would not be surprised if some followers unfollow me. While I do feel happy whenever someone follows me - not unlike the validation I feel when someone posts a blog comment - it's helpful to keep this in perspective, i.e., if people are following me, it's about the messages and not the messenger ... a hollow bones approach to Twitter.
On the other hand, the commoditization of followers leads to yet another online arms race, where instead of - or in addition to - competing for Google Juice, users are competing for followers, where search engine optimization is replaced - or augmented - by social media optimization. And just as there is a growing disparity of wealth in the financial economy - the so-called Matthew effect wherein the rich get richer - a September 2009 RapLeaf study reported follower statistics for the most popular Twitter users, which shows a similarly increasing disparity of wealth in the attention economy, wherein the popular get more popular:
[For those interested in learning more about the most popular tweeters, and their influence, Alex Leavitt (@alexleavitt) and his colleagues at the Web Ecology Project recently released a report on The Influentials: New Approaches to Analyzing Influence on Twitter, in which they analyzed 134,654 tweets, 15,866,629 followers, and 899,773 followees, based on 2,143 tweets generated by 12 popular Twitter users over a 10-day period.]
And why does this matter? Well, two things I've read recently - both of which were tweeted by my followees - help me understand the source of my unrest. One is a recent Wired article by Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), who had earlier captured the essence of my love/hate relationship in his June 2007 article on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense. In the current issue, Clive writes in Praise of Online Obscurity, describing how - and why -the growth of followership actually inhibits genuine connections and conversations in Twitter (the features I love the most about the service):
When it comes to your social network, bigger is better. Or so we’re told. The more followers and friends you have, the more awesome and important you are. That’s why you see so much oohing and aahing over people with a million Twitter followers. But lately I’ve been thinking about the downside of having a huge online audience. When you go from having a few hundred Twitter followers to ten thousand, something unexpected happens: Social networking starts to break down.
Why? Because socializing doesn’t scale. Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” [recipe tweeter Maureen] Evans says. So the conversation stops. Evans isn’t alone. I’ve heard this story again and again from those who’ve risen into the lower ranks of microfame. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they’re one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There’s no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there’s no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals. It’s the middle ground — when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers — where the social contract of social media becomes murky.
The second source of illumination was a recent blog post by digital communications phenomenologist / social media anthropologist Tac Anderson (@tacanderson) on 3 Reasons Why Social Media is Killing Search showed some trends regarding the patterns of use of Internet search engines and social media services (like Twitter):
The post includes several interesting observations about trends in social recommendation, better curating and a lack of search innovation. In a rather long comment I posted in response, I noted that:
I hope that in the quest for innovation, search does not become overly influenced by social media usage. danah boyd posted an insightful piece a while back about valuing inefficiency and unreliability, in which she emphasized the value conferred by effort. It seems to me that many Twitter users tweet (or retweet) a link to a long article or story without reading it (completely), or tweet a link to a short summary of a longer essay ... possibly drawn in by a catchy headline and/or an engaging first paragraph (and no, I won't say anything more about headlines, given another thread in these comments :).
My concern is that Twitter and other social media services are promoting a "snack culture", and without search algorithms that are not [as heavily] influenced by the memes of the moment, our ability to find original sources - or insights and experiences that may not be currently trendy - may suffer.
A recent Google blog post claimed that search is getting more social, [further] blurring the distinction between search and social media. Perhaps the commoditization of followers will simply accelerate a movement toward yet another paradigm of discovering people, places and things of potential interest. Meanwhile, following the processing practices for another abundant commodity, I hope that the growing plethora of tools for measuring Twitter influence will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
[Update: I've written more on the further commoditization of Twitter followers, highlighting yet another lowlight in the race to the bottom of devaluing followers in Twitter.]