The Follower Factory

Jessica Rychly, whose social identity was stolen by a Twitter bot when she was in high school. 

Excerpt from this article:

All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure American company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.

The accounts that most resemble real people, like Ms. Rychly, reveal a kind of large-scale social identity theft. At least 55,000 of the accounts use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors, according to a Times data analysis.

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

Several Devumi customers acknowledged that they bought bots because their careers had come to depend, in part, on the appearance of social media influence. “No one will take you seriously if you don’t have a noteworthy presence,” said Jason Schenker, an economist who specializes in economic forecasting and has purchased at least 260,000 followers.

Why I Unfollowed You on Instagram

Excerpt from this article on Medium, where the writer theorizes that “The Social Network is Yesterday, The Interest Feed is Tomorrow“, and which I found after someone tweeted that following this advice was the best thing they could have ever done to make their social media experience better:

I’m looking for an intelligent feed of my interests. A feed of stuff I’m going to like, drawn from a white-list of trusted curators but personalized for me. Not specific to one vertical (News, Music, Stuff to Buy, etc) or one content type (movies, photos, text, links). Ordered by the most relevant, the stuff I need to see RIGHT NOW.

I’ve found hiring these tools for the specific tasks they’re best at has extended their relevance to me by amplifying their value. All this to say — this is why I unfollowed you on Instagram, just like I did on Twitter a few years ago.

I use Facebook to keep a network of people I actually know IRL. There’s real utility to this network and the smaller it is the more useful it can be. This is where I post things that are personal and things that people who know me would appreciate but are not meant for “public”.

On Facebook it’s possible to “Like” bands, companies, brands, etc but I am un-Like-ing those instead. I want Facebook to do this one thing well — give me access to and filter the internet via a network of people I know IRL. Facebook will not be The Interest Graph. We’ve already watched AOL try to be Yahoo!, Yahoo! try to be Google, and Google try to be Facebook. No dominant player from the previous era will ever own the next era, too. This will be a new, purpose-built tool.

I use Twitter as a feed of news and humor. Once I stopped following people I know or celebrities I like and managed my list of Twitter followers as the list of bylines I’d like to see in my dream publication, my feed got interesting again. That said, I don’t consume it very often anymore for the reasons mentioned above.

I use LinkedIn to keep a network of people I’ve worked with and remember well enough to offer a recommendation about (positive or negative). If I don’t know you, I don’t accept your request. However, while I intellectualize this theoretical value, I never open the LinkedIn app unless I’m hiring. I do read the LinkedIn emails of news and updates on people in my network, though, so I find culling this list valuable.

Snapchat I use to communicate with a select few people and watch vertical video when I’m bored. The channel offering is limited and Snapchat has neither encouraged me to follow too many people nor put the most interesting stuff at the top for me yet.

Instagram, on the other hand, is special in that it is a medium for creativity, not information. “Creativity loves constraints”, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and the (initially) square box of Instagram allowed all of us to communicate a moment as artistically as we were capable. Popular artists of the medium were born. Artists embraced the medium. I love Instagram in an emotional way I don’t love any of these other services.

Nobody Famous

Excerpt from this article, describing “What it’s like to have the social network of a celebrity, without actually being famous”:

For celebrities, maintaining a large social network is just part of the job. For a regular person, things get pretty weird pretty quickly once a couple hundred thousand new friends show up.

… In all, aside from making people roll their eyes at me, the biggest impact of having this absurdly distended online network is that it makes my online life really weird. The weirdness is probably best demonstrated by a few of the recurring conversations that arise as a result:

“Yo, can you listen to my mixtape?”…

“Hey, can you get me verified?”…

“Please RT!”

… What becomes clear after a few years of having a large social network is that people are desperate to be heard. Some of this is related to the fundamental question of conversation online, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But much of it ties back to people feeling powerless, of flailing toward any person who seems like they could provide opportunity or a way forward.

… But more broadly, people have been sold a bill of goods. They want to believe that celebrity of any form, even fake online celebrity, has some kind of value, despite the evidence to the contrary. Signifiers like a blue verification checkmark or a number of followers are given an enormously prominent display on our social profiles. Yet despite their visibility, their capricious nature is never explained, and so people tend to wrongly see these as indicators of the quality a person’s social media presence.

The thing that’s forgotten is, people don’t have huge social networks because they’re good at using the Internet. Beyonce got to having millions of Twitter followers before she ever even wrote her first tweet.

Eavesdropping on the Seventh Grade ‘Instagram Show’

Excerpt from this article:

My daughter taught me the unwritten ground rules [of Instagram]. First: It is crucial to have a respectable ratio of “followed” to “following.” I watched as my cutthroat child threw several bodies off the lifeboat to correct the ratio.

At first, she posted mainly pictures of our cat. Boys were “liking” girl posts and girls were “liking” boy posts. While school life was a different world, in Instagram land, boys and girls were desegregating themselves and becoming (virtually) approachable. “Look,” I would show her, “Theo posts pictures of his cat, too.” (Boys. They’re just like you and me!)

Gradually, “The Instagram Show” became a giant downer. Now when my daughter checks her account, she spots photos of real-time sleepovers and birthday parties where girls she thought were her friends are having fun without her.

…During summer break, the photos hailed from France and Greece. My daughter stayed home with a broken arm. She posted pictures of her sky-blue cast and paid way too much attention to how many “likes” and comments she received. Her scrutiny was meticulous: She pointed out all perceived slights. One former best friend had “liked” a post immediately prior to hers and the post immediately following hers. Clearly, this kid was icing her out.

Instagram is a genius at the art of exclusion: It lets you see where you are not. It can also obliterate, erasing you from where you were. To be in a photo and to not be “tagged” is to be rendered socially invisible. Commenting on a party photo, my untagged daughter wrote, “I was there too!” If she had asked for advice, I would have told her to curb the vulnerability.

And then there’s the bioline, which can be used for good or evil. There, below your pic, you add a quote, a motto or a private joke between select friends. While the seventh-grade boys were still using the bioline to provide just the facts their (school, their sports, their favorite teams) girls soon deemed this an appropriate place to list their BFFs followed by a bunch of super-cute emojis.

…All too soon, boys’ names, or their initials, joined the BFF lists in the seventh-grade girls’ biolines. While the girls used emoti-hearts, the boys, I noted, wrote “taken by” before a girl’s initials.

How to Be Liked by Everyone Online

Excerpt from this article:

…Yet now I am told every day, sometimes by the minute, that someone is following me, and that this is good news. Person You’ve Never Heard Of is following you, Facebook announces with a ping. Guy You Went Out With Just Once 10 Years Ago is following you, Twitter says. You have 15,000 followers. This, we are meant to understand, is favorable and flattering.

The Internet — once again — has upended social and psychological norms. Linguistically speaking, what was formerly undesirable or just unpleasant is now highly sought after. To be “linked,” in a previous life, suggested something illicit — an affair or a possible crime associating His Name with Yours. But in Internet World, linking is a professional asset.

…And what has become of the sweet little word “share”? For children, sharing is a rare selfless act, a giving of oneself and one’s Halloween candy, a sacrifice. Even for adults, sharing has historically been considered a commendable activity, no matter the tangled motivations. Sharing in Internet parlance? Pure egotism. Check out my 6-year-old on the viola. Don’t you wish you were this attractive at 41? It’s such a drag maintaining waterfront property during the winter months.

…Words that have perfectly lovely meanings in the real world will inexplicably lose their luster online. Most people think long and hard about their favorite movie, novel, people and even color. Online, favorites are not so special. To “favorite” (now a verb) something on Twitter is to say, in effect, “I saw this thing and liked it O.K., but not enough to retweet it.” Or a tepid “I see you wrote something about me and I will acknowledge that by favoriting. But expect nothing more.”