Is buying Twitter followers ethical?
Note: Twitter has since deleted the 2000 bought followers from the @Corplunchbox account.
Accusations that Newt Gingrich was buying Twitter follows brought the practice of buying followers to the fore at the end of last year. Surely a Presidential candidate would be influential enough as it is and wouldn't need to resort to buying followers?
But with many offline influencers coming to the online party unfashionably late, the temptation to jump start a fresh account must be huge. No one wants to be in that awkward zero to 100 follower stage.
While friend-culling on Facebook became popular in recent years, Twitter remains very much a numbers game. Profiles with less followers find it harder to grow as many people associate the number with quality of engagement and discussion. I'll be honest, I'm guilty of looking at a person's number of followers in order to determine whether they are worth following or not. Someone could have great content and interesting insights, yet struggle to find an audience without a pre-existing base of followers - buying followers is a short cut which then boosts organic growth.
I've always been curious to see how buying followers works, though unwilling to experiment on my personal Twitter account. But I recently started up a twitter profile for my blog, The Corporate Lunchbox, which provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with buying followers. I tweeted the following on 16 April and the experiment began:
Full disclosure: just spent $12.50 and apparently TCL is getting 1000 followers in return. Watch this space... #SMExperiment #SoldmySoul
Turns out the minimum purchase was 2000 so I had to settle for a mere 2000.
In the early days @CorpLunchbox only managed to attract friends, the account was stuck on 30 followers for a while despite following anybody and everybody in the Auckland food scene. A few days after completing the transaction with Buyrealfollowers.com @CorpLunchbox had an extra 2000 followers.
As expected, these followers were all hollow accounts following thousands of people with no real followers themselves. They all had with vague bios and 4-5 tweets to make it look semi-legitimate – like my new follower, Eyui (Below).
Predictably, my new lifeless flock convinced other real people that the profile was popular and influential. It had perceived credibility, something that other profiles take years to build organically, and the rate of growth of real people following @CorpLunchbox began to increase.
I had jumped into an ethical grey area that is hardly ever discussed at social media events, on blogs and other such forums. While some people would argue that I was the one who had been duped by buying fake followers, my conscience wrestled with the fact that people were following me because they thought I was more influential than I actually was.
Very few people have the time to research accounts before following, so the number of followers becomes a quick method of assessing credibility, and unearned followers creates unearned credibility.
In my defence, the people following me as a result of my perceived influence had every opportunity to un-follow me if they believed my content to be dry and boring #smalljustification.
Twitter has rules that disallow the use of third-party sites that claim to get you more followers but it appears this isn't policed all that tightly. Buying followers was surprisingly easy and it hasn't resulted in any disciplinary action from Twitter.
This grey area becomes even darker when social media consultants use their number of followers (many of which have been bought) as evidence for their social media clout. Some of these people would not be considered influential at all if it weren't for buying followers. This false measure of competence is accepted by some organisations that don't realise it's possible to buy followers, and assume the person has credibility online.
While the true test of effectiveness should be the impact on business results, a brand could be talked into evaluating a social media campaign based on the number of new followers attracted to the brand's account. But what if those followers have been bought by an ethically-challenged consultant? I’m speaking hypothetically as I haven't heard of any situations like this, but this sort of activity could easily go un-noticed with the limited amount of information and discussion around the practice.
This blog is not intended to start a witch hunt, or expose those who, like me have bought followers. The purpose of this experiment and blog was to highlight the practice of buying followers and start a discussion on the ethics of this practice. While my position is strongly opposed, I would be interested to hear if others disagree.
Over the next week or so I'll be blocking the 2000 bought followers and hopefully the real ones will find the account compelling enough to continue to follow after @CorpLunchbox's real level of influence is revealed.
A few ways that you can tell if someone has bought followers:
Rapid follower growth – Tools such as Twittercounter.com can allow you to see the rate at which someone has gained followers. Looking at the @CorpLunchbox follower statistics it's fairly easy to see that 2000 followers were gained over a few days, in contrast to the usual slow growth.
Disproportionate followers to following – celebrities, journalists and brands will often have disproportionate amount of followers compared with who they are following as a result of their high visibility in other forms of media. But it's rare to find people with no existing profile that would attract many followers without following and engaging with others first.
Hollow followers – large groups of followers like Eyui. Vague bios, 4-5 tweets, following thousands and not being followed in return.