In the hockey-stick growth days of social media — roughly 2008–2010 — there was a gold rush of collecting as many social media fans and followers as possible.
The horse race was on! Each industry competed to see who was the most popular, or at least the spectators did.
And then what happened?
It was a race to nowhere.
In 2010, higher ed marketing consultant Brad J. Ward published a report called The Like Explosion. He reported how pages like Abilene Christian University (total enrollment: 4,558) grew from 12,500 likes to over 30,000 overnight.
“Literally overnight, Facebook Pages in Higher Ed have seen unprecedented growth out of nowhere,” Ward noted.
There was massive Like inflation.
“It’s easy for ‘experts’ to look at a list of the largest pages and proclaim them as the best pages,” Ward wrote. “But we know that Fans/Likes is only one metric of many to use when determining who’s truly doing it well.”
Today we know that fans and followers don’t mean everything. They’re not always even real people.
A recent report by The New York Times found that celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers in an effort to demonstrate popularity.
Devumi, which calls itself “a social media kickstart and influencer marketing company,” sells social media followers and likes to those looking for a popularity or ego boost.
But they’re just robot zombies emulating real people’s identity. The company uses 3.5 million automated accounts that are sold multiple times to create 200 million fake followers.
The company’s Twitter account has been suspended, but they’re still on Medium. Their “3 ways to build credibility” post seems especially ironic now.
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According to the Times investigation:
These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience — or the illusion of it — can be monetized. Fake accounts, deployed by governments, criminals and entrepreneurs, now infest social media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.
In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal gray zone.
It’s easy to condemn the shadowy identity thieves who create these fake follower mills. But they’re also only responding to demand — the need for popularity, validation and more more more. Make those graphs go endlessly up and to the right.
You can suspend Devumi, kick Russian Twitter bots off Twitter and demote all Facebook pages as a way to weed out fake news. But they’ll find a way around it as long as we crave popularity contests.
Here’s my hot take:
Conversing is better than shouting.
An indie film is better than a summer blockbuster.
Close friends are better than a crowd.
Liking someone is better than “liking” someone.