“Buying Their Way to Twitter Fame,” the New York Times article written by Austin Considine, exposes the [heartbreaking] reality of Twitter and possibly most of our beloved Followed.
All those followers, that indicate a person’s popularity and relevance, are not necessarily all human, and they are probably PAYED FOR. Considine mentions web tools that can detect the amount of “fake followers” an account has, and that some like Lady Gaga and President Obama’s accounts have followers of this sort at about 70 percent. And apparently, followers aren’t very expensive, going for as little as a penny apiece. Why is there worth in followers, though?
The amount of followers a person has on Twitter often lets us know whether or not they’re actually worth following. If it’s a celeb with millions of followers, we accept that they’ve successfully established a significant web presence- one that is interactive, informative, and to an extent personal (as these are some perks of using Twitter vs simply being written about in tabloids/press). Music blogs and movie reviewers and pop culture criticizers develop worth in followers—after all why do I care what just anyone has to say about the things I care about? They must be someone with influence, and someone whose opinion is respected. They should be funny at the very least. The point of this article, though, is to inform us that the illusion of popularity, respect, and relevancy may be present instead. It is fascinating that the worth of social connections has become monetary. These connections and the appearance of being widely acknowledged are so important that people are using their dollars to secure status.
I believe this article supports a technological deterministic point of view. It is, for one, written in such a way that takes for granted the simple fact that the amount of followers one has indicates something at all. It is assumed that the reader understands the inherent value of many followers. The causal nature of this phenomenon is also assumed. Having many followers on Twitter will absolutely determine/influence/aid one’s status. We make decisions based on this, we cannot help but to take this into consideration in the moments before we hit “follow,” it controls our course of action. This is all in line with Nancy K. Baym‘s *definition of technological determinism- “the technology is conceptualized as an external agent that acts upon and changes society.” While the article does not necessarily discuss what Twitter as a whole has done to society as a whole, we can observe how those within the Twitter community are subject to its format and design.
A closer reading, though, I think reveals the social shaping concept that Baym describes as such: “People, technologies, and institutions all have power to influence the development and subsequent use of technology.” While one of Twitter’s affordances is staying up to date on particular interests and those of particular users by way of following, the way users treat the act of following and has established the way we perceive other users, the value we add to our own accounts because of whom we follow, and the judgments we make about those we know of (i.e.: celebs) but do not know personally.
Judith Donath makes the case in her essay “Sociable Media” that “designing new sociable media involves understanding the features that affect how they can be used.” For all we know, the designers of Twitter could have intended the purpose of “followers” to be different from what it is, or at least different in the way users valued and used it. Even separate from intent, users are the ones who are left to decide how (and what is the “normal” way) to use that feature. For instance- what if the norm were (and for some it is) to only follow those you know personally and have established relationships with? We follow people, though, with the aim of either networking/establishing a co-directional and mutually beneficial relationship; or a one-sided relationship that involves us receiving information we wish to benefit from. Again though, even this becomes co-beneficial as the person being followed gains a follower, which means they gain value, which means they are important in the Twittersphere, which may or may not translate to significance in the physical world. This is all to say that we, the users/consumers of media and technology indeed have more than input, but an absolute affect in how technology and media are consumed. We give it value or deny it worth. This process doesn’t occur, though, without the predetermined constraints and affordances that are initially built into a technology. This exchange, I would argue, is exemplary of most relationships between new media and the people who use (and don’t use) them.
*Personal Connections in the Digital Age: Digital Media and Society Series