Number Games: The Problem With Twitter, Klout, and Social Media Rank

BlogHer Original Post

Social media was abuzz this week over news about people buying Twitter followers. I thought this was common knowledge, but from the reactions I saw, I realized many were unaware. I'm happy to see that it’s being acknowledged and discussed. Sure, followers can be bought, but at what cost?

Purchasing social media clout is a bit like taking a shortcut to win a marathon. The only victory, if you can call it that, is getting away with pretending to be better at something than you are.

 

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Across the web, you can buy followers for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more. They're relatively inexpensive. Forbes reported sites selling a thousand Twitter followers for $17, while last fall,this Inc. article broke down some eBay options.

So, what caused the breaking news and a flurry of tweets and Facebook posts this week? All it took was a free, web-based, third-party Twitter app to raise awareness about the need for social media quality control.

On Monday, Fast Company published a story about the StatusPeople Fakers app bringing a bit of what they called “Twitter shame” to social media. StatusPeople wanted to call out those who "buy followers in a vain attempt to build legitimacy."

I saw a certain level of concern as people tweeted and posted, realizing that an app could possibly reveal numbers we trusted could, in fact, be wrong.

Fakers doesn't tell you if someone has purchased followers, but it does reveal what percentage of followers one interacts with, how many are bots and how many accounts are inactive. You don't have to sign up for an account; as a third party service you sign in with your Twitter account.

The app has some limitations, as the measurements are made from a sampling of 500 followers, but they state on their site that:

For those of you with 10,000 followers or less we believe our tool will provide a very accurate insight into how many inactive and fake followers you have.

If you're very 'popular' the tool will still provide good insight but may better reflect your current follower activity rather than your whole follower base.

Apps that help you clean out your Twitter lists and eliminate followers who don't interact are not new. This concept is somethign different. StatusPeople doesn't want the Fakers to compromise Twitter integrity. They want users "to be able to spot them, and steer clear of them." Whether people will change their behavior because they could face "Twitter shame" is yet to be seen.

Within 48 hours of the Fakers app taking Twitter by a storm came talk about changes at Klout. Changes in the algorithm by which they measure social influence were unveiled, causing some scores to rise and others to drop with positive and negative opinions shared accordingly.

We place so much value in numbers -- followers, likes, stats, ranks, scores -- without realizing how easily those numbers can be manipulated by purchasing followers or learning how to work the Klout system, as one Wired journalist wrote about in April.

When I spoke about Pinterest and leveraging social media at BlogHer '12 in New York earlier this month, I couldn’t stress enough my belief that one’s social media value isn’t inherently based on numbers. That quality over quantity was important. Quality is harder to fabricate.

As a writer and as an editor, I am big on fact checking. I want to know where to get info and who are trusted sources.

If someone has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, why do we so easily allow that number to validate them, without anything to support it? It’s an odd sort of hero worship, and it reminds me of the post Morgan of the818 wrote called Social Media Is a Warm Gun. An important reminder that people with big followings are not always reputable sources.

Social media does allow for Wild West behavior. People have the ability to present themselves as whatever they want to be. I doubt that, before the 21st century, so many people had bios and business cards that defined them as experts. But we trust this expertise based on...numbers.

Perhaps we need the option of using social media platforms without disclosing numbers. Before platforms like Twitter and Klout existed, back when blogs were stumbled upon in the literal sense, people read them because the content mattered to them. The quality was right there on digital paper.

Sometimes these numbers are a bit like going to the home of someone who has to tell you the how much everything costs. A painting isn't any nicer because I know it cost three thousand dollars at auction. But knowing the number often makes us feel we are supposed to admire it for that reason, and not simply for what we like about it.

Let’s place less value in social media numbers and more in content that inspires, educates and informs us. Let’s connect because we like what we see, not because we’re think we should based on numeric value.

If StatusPeople's Fakers app is the beginning of a shift toward transparency in social media, let’s find the silver lining here. There is a tremendous amount of talent online. If we, as bloggers, continue to produce the best work we can, than the opportunities that blogging brings will remain possible, regardless of the social media number du jour.

[Editor's Note: Melissa Ford wrote about this topic from a different perspective today. Check out her post at How Many Twitter Followers Do You Really Have? -Virginia]

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