Let’s Talk About Follower Counts

In the early days of Twitter, everyone was a self-described expert. A few people even elevated their status to guru or ninja. For someone who just wanted to connect with other people, all of these followers were a bit too fake. Want to know what it was like back then? Turn on Clubhouse.

Everyone was learning the platform and exploring the new social media landscape at the same time. The way I saw it, calling yourself an expert was really a way of self-identifying as a know-it-all or a conceited jerk. Most of them used bots to follow people with the hope they’d receive similar treatment.

For more than two years, I painstakingly analyzed every new follower and decided if they were worthy of my Twitter feed. In that time, I probably blocked roughly 500 accounts. Sure, I could have just not followed them, but for some reason, I didn’t want them following me, either. Looking back, I was probably acting like the know-it-all or connected jerk I tried to prune from my feeds.

Today, people still claim expertise they don’t have and try to engage in follow-for-follow schemes. Not to mention the bots and fake famous folks. All of this is an attempt to increase the number of followers because that number indicates importance in today’s economy.

Except, it doesn’t.

We all know the following counts are fake. Or, at the very least, they are inflated. Last year, a study revealed, “about half of the Twitter accounts pushing misinformation about COVID-19 and calling for ‘reopening America’ may be bots.” In 2017, research determined roughly 48 million Twitter accounts were bots. Some services analyze your Twitter feed and determine the percentage of “fake followers” for a given account. Mine? Apparently, 14% are fake.

Screenshot by the author
Screenshot by the author

Last week, Medium cracked down on spam and purged thousands of accounts. As a result, my follower count went down around 5%. The Writing Cooperative lost about 7% of its total followers. I analyzed a handful of other major publications, and most lost between 5% and 12% of followers. A few lost much more.

While some people are undoubtedly upset about “losing” these followers, the reality is they weren’t really followers in the first place. They were not even real people. Spam accounts are just as bad (or worse) as I perceived all the “social media gurus” to be when Twitter first launched.

I applaud Medium for purging fake followers, and I wish more social networks would do the same. Frankly, I’d much rather the number of followers next to my name represents authentic people who chose to be part of my social network. They are my true audience and not some inflated or made-up number I didn’t ask for. Unfortunately, since we’re a long way from verifying the entire internet, routine bot purges will have to do.

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