In the fall of last year, I was interning at a record label (and in this context, will choose to keep the name private) when my boss told me something I had never heard. An unknown but signed band on their label was in the market for some Twitter followers and they were about to purchase a whole bunch. For me, this was unheard of, you could actually do that? But it was with this information in mind that I read an article from the New York Times entitled, “Buying Their Way to Twitter Fame.” After reading, I logged into my Twitter account to see that I had a staggering 126 followers, proudly, and maybe surprisingly, none of them paid for.
The article by Austin Considine talks about “Twitter’s worst-kept secret,” the process of paying companies to give you followers, Facebook likes, even YouTube videos. The purpose is obvious- more followers attracts more attention. However, some of the attention these buyers are getting may not be attention because they deserve it. As discussed in Baym’s reading, social shaping is described as the exchange of influence between us and technology. We influence technology, it responds to us, and we respond to it. This discourse of new media can be seen in the article. Because the number of Twitter followers is something that a user will take note of, we are manipulating the technology to increase our chances of being noticed. There are different ways to buy followers. “Generated” followers are either inactive accounts or spammers, known as “bots.” “Targeted” followers find users with simliar interests and follows them, usually expecting a follow in return. Both seem pretty fake to me. After creating the technology, we are changing it to please us, and it is responding back. Twitter has filed suit in federal court against five spammers, according to Considine. In responding to buying followers, companies have started fake follower checks to determine how many fake followers users have. They use some Twitter stats to decide- generated users usually have few followers but follow many. This is one way to determine what profiles are real vs. what profiles are fake.
Considine also applies the discourse of domestication to Twitter in his article. He assumes that everybody has it, everybody uses it, and everybody is influenced by it. The act of buying Twitter followers follows this discourse as well; no one would buy followers if they did not think that most of the population was a user. When Considine says, “And it’s not just ego-driven blogger types. Celebrities, politicians, start-ups, aspiring rock stars, reality show hopefuls — anyone who might benefit from having a larger social media footprint — are known to have bought large blocks of Twitter followers,” demonstrates this idea that everybody from all walks of life are on Twitter.
In An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube, Michael Wesch discusses authenticity. And while his presentation to the Library of Congress took place four years ago, I feel that it applies to what is happening on Twitter today. Buying followers is not authentic- it compromises the people who have deserved their followers. Authenticity, or being honest about “who you are,” becomes obsolete in a world where popularity can be purchased. The user looses their sense of self. Instead of seeing yourself how others see you, you are seeing yourself as you see you. Dan Nainan, the main example in the article, is a comedian who has bought his followers to gain popularity. He has a quote which applies to this directly- he says, “The number of Twitter followers I had in relation to how many people in the world know about me was woefully inadequate,” but maybe this is just what he believes. Maybe he is not as popular as he thinks he is. (In fact, I have never even heard of him before this.)
Does Nainan deserve all of the attention? Who knows. He has bought his way into the Twitter-sphere. In my opinion, he is cheating. He did not gain his popularity through talent, but because he had the funds to buy his way to the top of the Twitter-sphere. At this point, I’m pretty proud of my 126-person following on Twitter. While the number is small, knowing I didn’t have to buy them is a pretty good feeling.