“Case of the Fake People”

The women TLC were quite possibly psychics or prophets, drawing caution to the topic of friending practices on social media. danah boyd discusses the motivation for and common practices of fake profiles on social network sites in her paper “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites.” While much of her observations from 2006 in the contexts of Friendster and MySpace translate to other popular social network sites of 2012, SNS’ are rapidly evolving and have certainly endured changes, especially via social shaping, that call for us to acknowledge the changes. In that respect, danah boyd’s essay can be updated to accommodate not just the newer social networking platforms but also, more specifically, in terms of the way in which users engage with fake user profiles.   

 

The paper provides a basis for understanding friending practices on social network sites and some of the motivations and ramifications for such a practice. She then introduces a concept brought into being not by the designers of these sites but by the users- fake user profiles. boyd describes “Fakesters,” profiles on Friendster that do not represent or are not maintained and controlled by an/the actual person the account is named for, as those including “characters, celebrities, objects, icons, institutions, and ideas. The rationale she gives for such profiles is that they facilitate connectivity throughout the site, unite those with common interests, or allow a single user to amass thousands of “Friends.”

 

The still relevant points of this observation- the creation of fake or nonhuman profiles to connect similar users or provide entertainment or to gain a mass following, are not all that can be deduced about “fakesters” today. boyd’s paper for example does not address the newer motivations one has for engaging with fake user profiles in either direction- friending or approving friendship. One current motivation, on the Twitter platform, for the engagement with fake users and/or “bots” is to generate a large enough following that one will eventually achieve “Twitter fame.” Social networking today is largely centered around user-driven phenomena and user-generated content, so people are now taking advantage of these platforms to build their own stardom, which may or may not ever transcend the media space. That goal, though, of becoming widely recognized even if only via internet connection, is a prevalent one that has become more blatant on sites like Twitter and Tumblr especially. This is evidenced by the existence of how-to articles (like this one and this one) that offer methods of achieving Twitter fame. An app, Fame, was even developed (and subsequently discontinued due to a violations of Twitter’s terms and services) to allow users to possibly experience what it meant to be largely followed and influential on Twitter for a day. This practice is not representative of the community-centered interest-sharing motivations for fake friending as described by boyd. Twitter fame is a deliberate and individual-centered goal that users are actively pursuing. As mentioned in my previous post, people are even paying to for services that will increase their follower count via bots.

 

The focus must also shift to another realm that was previously unaddressed by boyd in this essay- the consequences of these connections to “Fakesters” or bots or fan pages. Sure, they facilitate communication between strangers that may have common interests or may be beneficial to one’s physical life because of their relationship to the similar point of interest. However, the relationship between a user and a fake profile is not simply one-directional in who controls the flow of that connection. These Twitter bots and fake profiles can make the “normal” user miserable by directing an influx of nonsensical or irrelevant content toward the user. Associations with celebrity profiles may increase visibility but does not allow a user to control the sort of attention and traffic they receive. This 2012 article on Media Bistro addresses the downsides of sought “Twitter fame” and having such a great visibility via specific relationships. Stories refer to users that have been followed or retweeted by big names like President Barack Obama and Kanye West and subsequently “quit” Twitter because of strange follower requests and messages.

 

So, heed the words of R&B music trio of the 90’s TLC when they say “goodbye, goodbye to all the fake people in my life” and “you better think twice, before you let people in your life.” Perhaps we should be more wary in our digital spaces in being selective about who (or what) we like, follow, and friend. In the end, though, it is all about our motivations and how we choose to construct that space.  

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