I’m a selfish Twitter user. I love scrolling through, letting it alert me to vital news, opinion, and baby mammal GIFs. But, like some 40 percent of all people on Twitter, I prefer consuming tweets to contributing them.
Cultivating a horde of Twitter followers would be a great move for me professionally. It would extend my influence as a journalist and bolster my—yes, ick—personal brand. I've long envied the hefty follower counts of Slate colleagues like Farhad Manjoo (25,000), Dave Weigel (77,000), and John Dickerson (a teeming mob of 1.38 million).
How to augment my small, proud band of 1,100 tweeps? I could have won new acolytes by offering links to timely content. By engaging in sharp intellectual battles. By crafting 140-character bons mots. But, much as I wish I could get jazzed about doing all that stuff (and once in a while I do briefly catch the Twitter bug), I don’t find it spiritually rewarding. To the freelance writer in me, this feels more like unpaid work.
So instead, I bought 27,000 followers from some sketchy Internet sites. Total cost: $202.
I'm not trying to fool anyone. I've laid bare my trickery here for the world to see. I just wondered what all the fuss was about. In July, when the Romney campaign denied accusations that it had bought followers, it was the first time I (and most people I know) even realized that buying followers was possible, let alone a thing anybody would wish to do. By August, the New York Times was revealing that in fact everybody does it, including "celebrities, politicians, start-ups, aspiring rock stars, reality show hopefuls—anyone who might benefit from having a larger social media footprint."
To figure out where my newly purchased followers were coming from, I called up Al Delgado, sole proprietor of the Brooklyn-based FanMeNow.com (not one of the sites I bought from, but the only one I could manage to get on the phone). Delgado explained that there are two different types of Twitter followers you can buy. “Targeted followers” are actual people who seem likely to be interested in the topics you tweet about. Marketing companies charge hefty fees to identify these compatible tweeps and then persuade them to follow you (by tweeting at them and through other means). Makes sense. But that’s not what I bought. Instead, I acquired fake “created accounts”—mass-produced zombies that do nothing but pad the numbers of your follower count.
Delgado told me he buys these fake accounts in bulk from suppliers in India. Techies on the subcontinent cook up all these nonexistent personas, making sure the accounts look just real enough to pass as nonrobots. In a typical day, Delgado says he fields 30-35 orders, most requesting between 1,000 and 5,000 zombie followers. "Sometimes someone will buy a million," he says, "which costs $1,300. Some of these are people you've heard of. I mostly sell to musicians but also lots of models, comedians, and porn stars."