The report exposes Twitter as willfully duplicitous to users, advertisers, and investors—revelations that could (and should) harm the company’s value and reputation. But it also takes for granted that “real” followers are valid and valuable. The problem with Twitter—and with social media in general—isn’t that the influence can be faked. It’s that it is seen to have so much significance in the first place.
That, in a nutshell is the argument of the piece, but for folks who want more, there is more.
In the aftermath of the Times exposé, the real influence of fake influence will likely decay, to some extent. Services like TwitterAudit, which can scan accounts for questionable followers and report a ratio of fakes, might become more widely used. That could make employers, influence networks, and ordinary people slightly more literate about the profligacy of internet companies. Professional influencers might be affected by such a change, but ordinary folk probably won’t be.
More likely, they will endure the disorder of knee-jerk reactions. The investor Mark Cuban called for a real-name policy on services like Twitter, arguing that “there needs to be a single human behind every individual account.” That’s a terrible idea: As the entrepreneur Anil Dash has argued, it would endanger marginalized people without improving trust. But Cuban’s reform does square with the Times’ take on virtue and wickedness at Twitter. Just shine light upon the shadows of the black market to put an end to the corruption. Then ordinary folk can be freed from the lust for fame that would rob them of their true selves.
But this is a fairy-tale story about the internet. Fraud is not the ultimate problem with fake social-media activity. The hustle itself is the blight. It produces the racket that sucks so many into its orbit. Salle Ingle is stuck in the same rat race as Kathy Ireland, and you and me, too. We just encounter it at different scales.
The culprit is the numbers themselves, not the lies that augment them, nor the profits made in doing so. The only reason there can be a market, let alone a black market, for social-media engagement is because these services are marketplaces of attention, not of ideas, products, or services. [emphases added] That’s why Twitter counts followers, likes, retweets, and all the rest so prominently. If the numbers were less visible, or entirely hidden, everyone might live more meaningful, more productive lives online, using posts as means to ends rather than as circulations within the system. It’s hard to imagine such a change taking place while companies like Twitter rely on the aspiration of visible metrics as a compulsion to use their services. That compulsion produces the attention necessary to sell advertisers and satisfy investors.
People now want the marketplace of attention more than the outcomes the attention might be directed toward. They expect it. To take away the followers I won in the Twitter-onboarding lottery would feel like a loss or theft, even though some large number of them are not real and never were. [emphasis added] There is a pride in having built a platform for attention, and there is also a shame in feeling pride for it. To boast that one’s followers are all “real,” or to call for a near future in which that state of affairs is insured, is just to affirm the virtue of the system. This is the back that must be broken for anyone to feel free on social media.
Influence isa good thing, at least when we understand what the nature of influence is and how it may be used. If we understand that in the end anyone who leads leads by example then how you respond to people is how you lead, regardless of whether or not you're officially recognized as a "leader".
The follower factory of the NYT is a market that exists because people take the idea that having followers on Twitter or other social media as a proposition and a reality to be taken seriously. Gone are the days when the internet is thought of so explicitly as virtual reality, its virtual reality is generally implicit, but it can be implicit in a way that can lead some to forget that it's still virtual.
The marketplace of attention is not the marketplace of ideas, though people could also suggest that maybe the marketplace metaphor is a bit too pervasive these days, too. :)
If internet traffic could be likened to a kind of dining for the mind then there may be some value to the proverb that it's better to have a dry crust with peace and quiet than to have a feast in a house full of strife.