To be clear, the zombie tweeps just sit there, inert. I tweeted at several of them to see if I could stir them awake and was met with total silence. Buying these fake followers doesn’t get you more retweets, more responses to your witticisms, or more traffic for the articles you link to. It just gets you a bigger number next to your name.
So why do people do this? I assume it’s in part to create an illusion of success that people hope will be self-perpetuating. It's like showing up to a date in a rented Mercedes drop-top when in real life you drive a dinged-up Kia. To the casual observer, your numerous fake Twitter followers suggest you're a social media powerhouse—a person of influence not be ignored.
It also seems like fake followers might beget more real followers. I noticed that after I'd bought my zombie followers, the rate at which new, nonzombie people followed me seemed to rapidly accelerate. I had a hunch that, because I seemed more popular, I was showing up more in the box to the left of your feed where Twitter suggests people for you to follow. When I asked a Twitter spokeswoman if this was the case, she told me, "The answer to this is still, 'It's complicated.' The number of followers by itself is not an automatic signal for boosting an account to be suggested. It's a factor, but along with a number of others." Still, it's a factor. And, as best I can tell, Twitter is not fantastic at sniffing out whether a huge percentage of your followers are fake—they seem more likely to assume that all those inert accounts are real but "inactive." Your Klout score might also get a small boost due to your larger number of followers, though Klout says your score is based much more on ability to get replies and retweets than your sheer follower counts.
There are also downsides to buying fake followers. For instance, you might be embarrassingly busted. A site called StatusPeople.com offers a Fakers App that purports to suss out how many of a given Twitter handle's followers are shams. But it's not perfect. It thought only 4 percent of my followers were fake while it labeled 89 percent inactive (which could apply to real people who passively read but don't tweet or retweet). And when I ran the app for other handles, the results were confusing. The Fakers App called fully 15 percent of Dickerson's followers fake and 46 percent inactive, even though he's never bought zombies. Likewise, Slate has never bought followers for its @Slate feed, yet the app accuses us of having 12 percent fake fans and 38 percent inactives.
Still, unless people harbor some sort of resentment or suspicion about you, it's pretty unlikely they'll bother to investigate like this. They'll just assume you're a Twitter star. And here's where it gets uncomfortable for me. Confession: In the month or so since I bought all those followers, up until outing myself in this story, I've sometimes felt a small ego jolt at the thought of people noticing that impressive number next to my name. Which is creepy and absurd. Unlike my talented Twitter colleagues, I did absolutely nothing to deserve this feeling of pride and accomplishment. I very much did not build that.
My giant, gormless lump of fake followers will never go away. To ditch them, I'd need to sort through my 29,000 one by one, taking care not to jettison any flesh-and-blood tweeps. Not gonna happen. So the zombies will trail me around until the end of days, sort of like (to paraphrase Eddie Murphy) herpes, or luggage. They'll sit there silently, serving as a constant reminder that I've taken a lazy shortcut. I'll feel guilty about this from time to time. But I'll also enjoy some of the benefits of Twitterati status—without making myself into a links clearinghouse, straining to be clever, or living my life in public. I guess Mitt Romney (and his 1.2 million followers) would call me a taker, not a maker.
Update, Thursday Oct. 4, 2012, 9:11 am: Within a few hours of this story being posted on Slate, my follower count suddenly plummeted from about 29,000 to 1,223. I don't yet know who deleted all those followers, or why. But I have my suspicions! I will investigate and post further updates as I learn more.