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."
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.