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Numbers games: traversing the choppy social media seas

Mike Baird via Flickr Mike Baird via Flickr

Last week, the Twitterverse was abuzz after questions were raised about the legitimacy of follower numbers and whether the system was being gamed by some to increase the perception of influence. And we've heard from a couple of people since who want to alert brands to what they believe is a social media scam—and a completely over-hyped metric.  

Facebook account manager Adnan Khan came in for some unwanted attention last week when the Status People app revealed 94 percent of his 30,000 followers were fake. When we talked with him about the situation he pleaded innocence and said his email had been compromised. So, given his role with a social media company, we believed him and didn't think he'd be foolish enough to buy followers. 

Questions were also asked of a few others, including John Lai, the founder of Social Media NZ, and Justin Flitter, the founder of Flitter Media, as they both have around 30,000 followers. But the Status People app showed their followers were mostly real. 

Porter Novelli's Bill Rundle kicked this whole debate off with The Corporate Lunchbox experiment and he has pointed out that one of the issues with the Status People app is that it takes a random sample of 500 followers, not the entire list. It also says on the website it's not as accurate for those with over 10,000 followers.  

After the story broke, one source who wished to remain anonymous conducted a bit of an experiment by purchasing 2,000 followers and then doing the test on Status People. They came up clean. 

They also told us there are different types of followers available to purchase. For example, 25,000 followers can be bought for as little as US$140, but they're more likely to be bots and more likely to be outed as such with the help of some of the modern tools now available. But for around US$1200, you can buy "targeted followers", often real people who run numerous accounts, almost like a Twitter sweat shop. They are much harder to pick up as fakes. 

We were sent links to a number of sites that offer paid-for followers like http://buytwitterfollow.com/http://www.fanmenow.com/http://intertwitter.com/http://www.buyactivefans.com/buy-twitter-followers/ and http://www.fastfollowerz.com/

As many have pointed out, it does seem unusual that two social media types from New Zealand have managed to reach such heady heights when someone with a fairly big public profile like Sara Tetro is hovering around 5,000 and the New Zealand Herald is around 47,000. And while Rundle says he didn't intend to start a witchhunt, he thinks it's good that the importance of transparency in social media is being recognised (a similar issue is currently playing out in US political circles, with both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich implicated in social media fraud recently for implausible spikes in Twitter followers). He believes it's unethical to buy followers and says it "does seem highly likely that some of the people mentioned over the past few days are guilty of buying their flock". 

When we talked with Flitter, who now has 33,000 followers, he says he has tried a range of different strategies and tactics over the past three years to grow his audience, including buying followers (he's agreed to write a column on the issue for StopPress next week, so keep an eye out). 

We sent Lai an email and asked for a chat but he hasn't responded, but he was fairly open in the comments section of the ComputerWorld story saying: "Good to know I'm legit as! ;)" after testing his account on Status People and, when asked if he had purchased followers, "Nope! never crossed my mind good sir. Also in the process of writing a post about status people as we speak :)".

As he wrote on socialmedianz.co.nz:

As Status People has been making the rounds amongst the NZ twittersphere, there’s been lots of talk about celebrities like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga’s having huge fake follower numbers, both listing 40% fake followers and about 20% engaged followers. At first glance, those numbers look suspicious and deceptive. Like they’ve bought “fake” followers from a number-boosting service. Looking a bit more critically though, you have to acknowledge that these are mega stars so they’re attracting HUGE followings each day – from the most active twitter users, to people who join the platform with the sole purpose of following that star to bots set up to recognise keywords (say, Justin Bieber or Pop) and autofollow relevant profiles.

In a community where the size of someone’s following has a direct influence over their credibility, it’s always important to challenge the reasons behind someone’s big numbers. In lots of cases it may turn out a large percentage of them might be genuinely fake accounts but coming to the conclusion that a person is buying followers based only on hugely simplified Status People data is unfair.

So does it matter? What's the big deal if a few narcissists try to bump up their follower numbers? PR agencies have long aimed to get editorial endorsements of products or clients from various media, as that's seen as being more valuable than buying an ad. But social media means individuals now have plenty of influence as well. So, when some brands overseas are paying stars thousands of dollars to Tweet on their behalf, when brands hand out free stuff or offer benefits to appease those with lots of followers who may have complained about something, when experts are using follower numbers to quantify their level of social media nous in an effort to get paying clients, and when a central theme of social media is transparency and openness, many would probably be interested to know whether or not that influence has been earned legitimately. 

As Rundle says in his post fake followers debate gets personal: 

Some may consider my stance on the topic of buying Twitter followers dogmatic and somewhat obsessive, but as someone who works with businesses to provide social media advice, I consider purchasing followers unethical. 

Deception is at the heart of the issue when it comes to buying fake followers. People buy followers to appear more influential than they really are, whether it is to sell themselves as an expert in exchange for fees or a salary, or to drive more traffic to their website or blog. 

Another by-product of buying followers is an unjustified increase in real followers as people perceive greater credibility from an account with lots of followers. In my experiment with The Corporate Lunchbox, the rate of real followers increased following the injection of 2000 fake accounts as people assumed my Twitter account (@Corplunchbox) must have had something interesting to say to command such an audience ... Shedding light on the practice of buying followers further highlights why like and follow numbers are largely irrelevant when it comes to social media measurement and effectiveness. Behavioural change, sales, and engagement are much more useful results to consider when evaluating a campaign.

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