“Fake Followers” are “Social Spam”

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Just about 12 years ago, at a costume party hosted by Ruby Red Labs in the SOMA district of San Francisco, I got a chance to talk to one of the now-forgotten founders of Twitter, Noah Glass. He showed me Twitter (or Twttr as it was known back then). I tried it and must have liked it because I went home (admittedly just a few blocks away) and in a slightly inebriated state wrote about the product and Twitter was launched. It is perhaps why I retain a lot of affection for the product, and its co-founders. I am not shy about expressing my displeasure, but in general, Twitter has been a great little addition to my life.

And perhaps that is why I was pleased to learn on my twelfth anniversary of using Twitter (which reminded me of that, obviously) I lost 200,000 followers. I was part of the big fake account and bot purge that Twitter has recently embarked on. The New York Times says that there are about 48 million active users are what it calls “automated accounts designed to simulate real people.)

As The New York Times noted — Oprah ( down 1.4 million), Ellen (down 2 million), Justin Bieber (down over 3 million) and Kim Kardashian (down 3 percent) — lost many more. I would be happy to lose half or even more of my followers if that means cleaning up the service, increasing the signal and dampening the noise. I think the challenge for social platforms like Twitter is that real engagement is being drowned by the noise in the system – fake accounts and bots. 

It is not just Twitter. Facebook has over 85 million fake accounts and the number of daily attempts to create fake profiles is only going up. Since I have given up Facebook, I have not experienced the fake-follower problem on Facebook, even though a simple Google search reveals so many accounts with my name, it is hard to tell, who is real and who is not. What I do know, is that Facebook 2.0 aka Instagram, is essentially a cesspool of fake, dead and ghost accounts. And I am doing something about it.

I recently downloaded an app called Cleaner to see how many inactive or ghost accounts I have as my followers. Of 43,000 followers, I have identified that nearly 16,000 were inactive or ghost followers. A ghost follower means an Instagram account that lies fallow — it might follow you but never engages and as such is pointless. Some believe that these ghost followers are created to ramp up the Instagram follower-count. This is especially good for celebrities and influencers who need to put up these false edifices to extract dollars from brands. I am not an influencer, so I don’t really give a toss about the numbers. What I care about is engagement, community, and people to actually have a chance to look at my photos and comment on them. I have cleaned up about 9000 accounts so far, and there is a long way to go. I already see my interactions are improving. And yet again, less seems to be more.

That brings me to the real problem — the idea of follow and followers, is no different than the audience of the older media. Whether it is magazines, television, cable, Internet or social web — audiences are much smaller than they appear. If you were to really drill down into real influence — you could start with daily active users, their daily active usage and then the consistency of that number. And if you can correlate that with the actual transactions, then the value accorded to influencers can be even higher.

For me, the social Internet exists for precisely one reason—social and sociability. I want good clean conversations, I want to stay in touch with people and publications. I want to know why the brands I appreciate are doing. I want real people — my friends to inform me. I don’t want some influencer to tell me what is good, what I should buy. This conflation of valuing people with the number of followers is precisely the reason we are often finding ourselves in strange unsocial environments where basic civility has been replaced by screaming for attention. This means you have more followers, and more “influence.” And you make more money — and if that means fake accounts inflating your value (and ego) then so be it.

Ironically, Wall Street is happy to support this bullshit. This hoodwinking of everyone is not only endorsed by investors but doing the right thing means you are punished for doing the right thing, something Twitter found out for cleaning up its act. I for one applaud Twitter management for taking the step.

Most of us often forget that social platforms are made of people and represent social environments. Just as we clean up the garbage in our real world social environments (cities and neighborhoods), why shouldn’t we clean up all the garbage online.

I can tell you one thing — 12 years ago, I didn’t know if Twitter was going to be big, successful and part of the global political fabric. I did know though, someone did tell me on Twitter where to get a meal in San Francisco, really late at night. (Naan & Curry, if you really want to know.)  That was plenty good for me then and it is pretty good now!

July 16, 2018.  San Francisco

A letter from Om

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