Will Follow Back

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Becoming a ‘tweeter’

From world leaders to the local chippy, it seems everyone’s whose anyone is on twitter these days. According to The Telegraph, there are approximately 500 million people orbiting the celestial Twitterverse, outputting an average of a tweet per day. That’s an incredible 14% of the entire worlds population, a staggering 1/5 of people who use the internet. The numbers are simply too astounding to contemplate.

Now let’s be honest, most of this is utter bullshit. Partly why I’ve been a late adopter, but predominantly because I was being lazy. Multiple social profiles seemed like hard work. But I was told, that to be a journalist in the digital era, you need to be on twitter. And so I eventually took the plunge.

Its been a while since those first tentative steps, and so far I have found twitter to be a strange place indeed. Because of the sheer volume of voices, the world of twitter is a rather fickle one. So you start off by setting up your account and you then you choose who to follow. After a while you’ll find that your news feed is inundated with tweets on all manner of topics. From Politics, science, kittens to twerking – twitter has it all, mashed together in 140 character snippets of opinion, debate and humour.

So how does anyone find any meaningful information in this ocean of voices? If you’re like me, you’re following hundreds of people. In which case,third party applications like Hootsuite can really help make sense of all that noise, I kind of wish that such a sophisticated system was already built into the website to begin with.

Regardless, with the right tools then and the appropriate keywords, there is still a lot of interesting content to be found. And like all forms of social media – whether that be Facebook, Twitter, reddit and even just your regular old forum – its what you make of it that counts. For instance, I have found Twitter is particularly good for finding and researching stories, but I’m sure there are many other alternate uses.

However, there’s a darker side to Twitter and social media in general. And it is something that has become ever more prevalent as time progresses.

Social media narcissists

“Gaming” for follows

A while back I met some fellow aspiring journalists for an afternoon of networking. Fun times, I know. Regardless of how much fun I may or may not of had, I did meet some interesting people.

One example is a woman who spoke fervently and without pause. She was the kind who dominated conversation. She simply couldn’t stop talking about herself, about what she’d done, her past, interests and ambitions. I quietly listened, nodding slowly, leaning back and smiling. She gave me a fancy business card and asked me to follow her on twitter.  So I went home and did just that.

And while at first she followed back, after a few days she unfollowed me. I naturally assumed it was something I tweeted, which was nothing particularly controversial. But after having a more thorough look at her page – the number of tweets she had, followers, who she followed, and the like – it became readily apparent that something was amiss.

For a person with upwards of 2000 followers, she was somewhat lacking in tweets. This baffled me at first. Then I thought, what if other users had also done this? I was curious to see how many people had stopped following me. I found a handy app which tells you exactly who unfollows you and when. And to my surprise, there had been quite a few. Had I really offended all these people?

After a bit of searching, I found out about the “follow and dump”. This is when a fellow user will coax others into following, then simply unfollow a few days later. Not an uncommon practice, and there are even apps that help you find those susceptible to this kind of manipulation 

While it’s not exactly news that twitter has its fair share of self absorbed, egocentric maniacs, it got me thinking – what’s really more useful to a journalist, having a superficially high number of followers, or having a smaller but more engaging number of followers? Having access to more information, or having the highest twitter “ratio”?

Now I know you’re thinking, “No shit Sherlock, the internet is rife with assholes!” And I suppose you could apply that same generalisation to life outside the virtual realm. But this is a problem that is becoming increasingly frustrating. I find myself having to frequently check to see who is trying to “game” me in order to inflate their social media standing. But why?

Buying followers: booming market

Paying for likes…what’s the bloody point?

If your a regular twitter user you may often find yourself beset by messages from anonymous marketers, who promise you “10,000 followers” for 50p and a packet of skittles.  The black market for Twitter followers and similar sites is by no means a new phenomenon. For instance, I remember reading a few years back, about a Youtube channel getting two billion views removed for “artificial inflation”.

It seems then, that the market for robot follows is increasing. In fact, recent research explored accounts that had either gained or lost a large number of followers in a single day.  They found some of the biggest names in business, such as Pepsi and Louis Vuitton.  In fact, Mercedes was caught adding 28,283 followers one day in October 2012 randomly, and gained a follower increase of 20,992% from its average daily follower gain.

Overall they estimated that the industry had mushroomed to be worth up to $360 million a year.

“There is now software to create fake accounts,” one of the researchers said in an interview. “It fills in every detail. Some fake accounts look even better than real accounts do.”

So you can now quite readily buy virtual services then, for fake likes and views, costing as little as $75 for a 1000 of each. The businesses that provide them are dubbed Click Farms, and their numbers are growing at an alarming rate. Not only that, there are serious concerns about the welfare of people employed in such places.

…It is miserable work, sitting at screens in dingy rooms facing a blank wall, with windows covered by bars, and sometimes working through the night. For that, they could have to generate 1,000 likes or follow 1,000 people on Twitter to earn a single US dollar.”

It concerns me that these low skilled workers are being exploited like this. Not only is the welfare of these workers a major issue, but the clicks they generate make a companies online profile misleading. But the benefit to business is clear – prestige services create buzz, they give a sense of notoriety that the sheep-like masses flock to, much like viral marketing or paid shills. So for some big brands, paying for prestige is a sound investment, despite the questionable ethics of the practice.

Fortunately there are many efforts underway to try and combat this form of vote rigging. But it’s proving difficult to weed out these fake profiles when their behaviour is so similar to that of genuine users. But what worries me more than shady business practices, which we expect from unscrupulous marketers,  is that ordinary users might be doing the exact same thing. I mean, its not entirely unreasonable my unnamed friend the self-absorbed journalist, also invested a paltry £50 for a 1000 fake followers. It would certainly make her a lot more attractive to prospective employers.

You’ve got to listen to be heard

It’s a two way street

A lot of us use social media for so many different reasons. And sadly it seems, a lot of that is just to earn this internet prestige. Gaming the system to do this however, is just downright despicable and a simply waste of time. Even if they aren’t caught, offending persons or firms will lose out in the end.

If you’re genuine and passionate about what it is that interests you, or what your business is selling, then you won’t need to go to such extremes to influence perceptions. People value honesty more than anything. When you start manipulating and even buying likes, shares and follows, you completely miss the really useful tools sites like these have to offer. Like I said before, Twitter, reddit and the like, are ultimately what you make of it.

So I guess, my presiding message is, Facebook is not about getting the most likes, and Twitter is not about getting the most followers. It’s about reaching and engaging with the right audience. You can’t do that if you waste your time and money accumulating artificial likes and follows.

These platforms were meant to help us learn about the world and about others, and it’s a real shame that such a powerful tool is being misused by a handful of people and companies. Social media gives us the ability to listen to what other people have to say and connect with them in a way that is direct and instantaneous. With the click of a button, you can engage a million users. Something that was unfathomable just a few decades ago.  We now have the capacity to have a meaningful conversations with and even form friendships with complete strangers from across the globe with almost no hindrance. When you focus on the superficial details such as likes, followers or karma, you completely miss out on the true power of social media to gain you real influence, and not just superficially. That real prestige will come with time, all you have to do is be patient.

The prevalence of the internet has the power to impart power unto and liberate people. But that’ll only happen if we listen and engage with each other on a level playing field.

One day I was sitting outside cafe waiting for an interview. I was nervous, sweaty and usure of where I was supposed to be going. Much to my dismay was clad in a serious looking, uncomfortable business suit. There was an older man sitting next to me, who I asked for directions, and he kindly complied. A conversation soon ensued, which ebbed and flowed like any good conversation ought to. After discussing from Plato to Politics, he asked me a question, one that has stuck with me since: What is the best way to reach people?

And after some lively debate, we both wholly agreed, that you have got to be honest in your opinion, but more importantly, you have got to listen to be heard. Because it’s a two way street. You can’t expect others to follow you, and hear what you have to say, and not extend that same privilege back.

But despite my gripes with some twitter users and seedy marketing practices, there is a silver lining to all this. One thing that you can do on twitter, is unfollow someone who you think is a faker. Because no matter how much influence these users may try and buy, or game, it’ll never have the same meaning or capacity to influence as someone who has genuinely earn’t that standing. Being followed, liked, or friended, is an opportunity to learn for both parties. And if you’re willing to follow and listen to what I have to say, then regardless of how much my twitter ratio will suffer, or my apparent influence decline, I will always follow back.

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