Influence & Insecurity: Fake follower debate divides Toronto

Apparently there is a big uprising within the Toronto social media scene over fake Twitter followers. I’ve read that it may also involve Obama, but he lives south of the Q.E.W., so unfortunately he’s excluded from this blog post.

The question some people have asked is: Who cares?

Apparently a lot of people do, based on the blogs, Tweets and odd crazy YouTube video flying around the socialsphere.

In fact, I don’t believe I have seen the Toronto social scene so fired up since we scrambled to check into “Toronto Earthquake” to earn a Super Duper Swam badge on Foursquare back on August 23rd of last year.

But I digress.

It is nice to see some of these conversations start to take place out in the open. They have helped raise attention to the two I’s of social media: Influence & Insecurity. The time has come for some accountability in the world of social media.

The conversations are not new – they happen in private, but for some reason people have been scared to air these issues one of the world’s most transparent networks for fear of retribution. Or maybe no one wanted to be socially ostracized and branded a hater. Who knows.

Respected Toronto-based community manager Sheldon Levine wrote this week, “What’s even funnier about this situation is that the usual “social media expert” folks who usually say that the number of followers you have doesn’t matter, all of a sudden care about these follower numbers.”

He makes an excellent point.

For years we’ve heard people preach about engagement – quality over quantity. But we all know that that is one dirty lie. It really is about the numbers for most brands and many individuals. A hockey player isn’t measured on how pretty he scores goals. At the end of the day, no one will remember how, only how many. That’s life.

I believe it was Jay-Z who said, “Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t lie.”

Unfortunately, in this Toronto tale, the numbers do lie. In some cases, they REALLY lie. And this angers bloggers like Zach Bussey.

“No big surprise to me,” wrote Bussey of the news that certain influencers possess a large percentage of fake followers. “I knew it was only a matter of time before these fake people were exposed for their bullshit behaviour and corporate abuse by lying to companies and saying they had a larger network than they truly did.”

In Sheldon’s heartfelt rant, he defends those who are part of a witch hunt that seeks to out the fakers – you see, nothing is worse than being outed as a fake in what is supposed to be the most open, transparent place on earth.

People are attacking these influencers. I’ve seen comments equating it to lying on a resume. While we have learned that it is possible to have someone load your account up with fake followers without you having any control over it, I clearly don’t have as much sympathy as Sheldon – the fakers need to be held accountable for their misleading ways. And there’s no doubt that we live alongside some dishonest people on Twitter faking influence. But the real question is who provides these influencers with power?

I would argue that the fault lies with the system (Read: Brands, agencies, etc.) that have helped build up these so-called influencers. Influencers have been rewarded with cars, free trips, exclusive parties etc. This created a competition among people to become one of the most popular members within the community – remember the drama created when Virgin Airlines flew Torontonians to San Francisco? If anyone is to blame for the rise in fakes, it is the people who created this competition. Essentially they replicated high school, but with real-world stakes.

“Rather than scrutinizing the fakers, turn the finger to the brands that are choosing to associate themselves with these fakers,” says Valerie Stachurski in a recent blog post. “Clearly, big numbers mean more to them than quality, so that’s their own problem.”

The system needs a reboot and this saga may be just the jolt required to turn the tide. Of course, change will only happen if people recognize that the current model is broken. That’s exactly what Stephanie Fusco points out in her open letter to PR professionals. She argues that the same influencers are being used over and over again by agencies and it is eroding credibility. Not to mention, it is extremely lazy in my opinion.

“The opinion of a blogger who shills for a different brand every minute means nothing,” argues Stephanie.

So what is influence?

I was sitting in a board meeting on Monday and my mind wandered onto this very topic.

Our board is currently tasked with raising more than $10-million for a charitable cause. Each person in the room was asked to reach out to their network to bring in donations ranging from $100,000 to $1,000,000. That’s a lot of money. That’s also the moment where I realized that my influence paled in comparison to the other heavy hitters in the room who had access to CEOs and successful businessmen and women who could provide us with six and seven figure contributions.

At that precise moment in time, my Klout score, my Twitter follower count, and my Facebook friend total all meant nothing. All I had to my name was my reputation and the real relationships that I have solidified over the course of my life.

And why the insecurity?

If we return to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he describes the stages of growth in humans. Esteem is the fourth of five levels. This passage from Wikipedia explains it better than I could ever hope to:

“Esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People with low self-esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others.”

At the end of the day, you are only as strong as your reputation. Which is why I try to live by the advice my father always gave me – the same advice succinctly summarized in this quote from Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharpe: “It’s the Golden Rule – the simple idea that if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same.”

If you work for a brand or an agency, it is on you to do the due diligence to make sure you are working with reputable people. If you are an individual making your way in this world, keep it real. No one should ever fault you for that.

About Jaime Stein

Jaime is the Senior Manager, Social Media at Hootsuite. He is a digital marketer with expertise in social media and content marketing. His experience stems from leading the social media strategy for two national brands. Jaime holds an MBA with a focus in Marketing and Strategy from the Rotman School of Management where he was selected valedictorian by the students of the Morning MBA Class of 2011. He is the former radio voice of the Toronto Argonauts and currently lives in Vancouver with his wife and two sons.
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14 Responses to Influence & Insecurity: Fake follower debate divides Toronto

  1. A wonderful synopsis of all the points of view provided by people over the last couple days. I wonder what happens next… I think that’s the big question mark in all of this. I’ve had this conversation twice today… and so far, there is no consensus. It’s going to be another odd shift in a online community that is already uniquely odd.

    • Jaime Stein says:

      A great question about what happens next… maybe a round table discussion on your next show? I’m going to collect my thoughts and possibly share them in this space another day – thanks for the comment and keep up your blogs. They spark some great discussion.

  2. Love this, Jaime. I think it’s a great culmination to all of the debate that’s been happening online about this. Like Zach said, I’m really interested in what happens next. People are all riled up, but are the important people actually taking notice?

    We’re in a weird state right now in social, with “influencers” becoming increasingly demanding and the PR pros that fund their ego growth pandering to their desires. Can’t wait to see where this goes…

    • That’s the part that kills it all. PR companies go for people with the biggest following – which makes sense at first glance. However, if you’ve got a billion followers/readers/views but get whored out to cover EVERYTHING that comes your way, how do we know your true opinion on anything?

      • Jaime Stein says:

        Crystal – You make an excellent point and one I wish I had articulated better in my initial post. There are too many “influencers” representing multiple brands. How can you stand for anything if you stand for everything?

        While some jealousy does exist from the people who are not picked to experience the free stuff, there comes a point in time where we get tired of seeing the same people blogging about ANOTHER experience with a brand. Stephanie talked about it in her blog post and I think the issue rests with senior decision makers who are obsessed with numbers, reach, etc., even if those numbers are meaningless. We need to focus on more relevant metrics and find the true ambassadors whom we should engage and reward. Thanks for your comment!

    • Jaime Stein says:

      Thanks for the comment Stephanie. I truly believe that we are at a tipping point. From my standpoint as a Manager for a big brand, I’m looking for quality ambassadors who are already engaged with our brand. Follower counts, etc. don’t really matter. I’m seeking Clients who are committed to our cause whether we give them perks or not. I’m also looking to extend the relationship beyond the first contact (read: perk). Time will tell which method(s) will work and which will fail.

  3. Jamie – great post and timely too.

    I can’t tell you how excited I am to see tools emerge (though I have yet to full study this one) that start to shed light on ‘black hat’ social media management. We took over a large client and all their social media community management from a small ‘social media expert type’ group and were just amazed at how much optimization/cleaning out we had to do. With respect to twitter, the brand was following a good 40 – 50% of folks that had nothing to do with the business.

    Also – I have to say.. I like @zachbussey ‘s quote. And this surprises me and doesn’t. And now to dive deeper into all your linked stories..
    ciao – Laurie.

    • Jaime Stein says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Laurie. Your story is one that has become too familiar. An obsession with chasing numbers rarely leads to a positive outcome. Hopefully more people will adopt your mindset of quality over quantity. I look forward to learning about the tools that emerge from your research. Cheers!!

  4. 40deuce says:

    Hey Jamie,
    This is a great summation of everything that’s been happening.
    I just want to point out that it’s not I feel sympathy exactly for these people, but it’s more that the way I saw people calling others to be done in a very petty way. Like you said in here, there seems to be an arms race for people trying to come off as “influencers” because they want to get invited to parties or sent free crap. I got that type of feeling from some of the call-outs I saw that it was more about jealousy of sorts than of having a moral upstanding.
    The other problem with this whole thing is that no one has really explained how StatusPeople actually works (and I haven’t even used it myself). How does it determine if a follower is fake? For instance, in one post I saw (sorry, I forget which one) someone plugged in Lady Gaga’s Twitter handle and it turned out that she had an extremely high number of “fakers.” Now really, why would Lady Gaga go out of her way to buy a following? She’s already like a cult leader. I’m sure getting followers isn’t a problem for her, but she also has zero control over who follows her. As well, the larger a Twitter personality gets the more spam accounts start to gravitate to them. Not to toot my own horn, but even I get a ton of seemingly spam accounts following me these days.
    Now don’t get me wrong, I agree that more diligence needs to be done. People need to be somewhat accountable. I also agree with Stephanie’s point that brands are getting lazy in choosing who they work with (I think I made a point of saying something like that in my post as well). However, what I saw was jealousy fueled attacks based on something people know very little about (both StatusPeople and the real story of where people were getting followers from). So before we accuse people of buying followers, maybe a little bit more research is needed.


    • Jaime Stein says:

      Thanks for the comment Sheldon. There is a lot of jealousy out there and I think that is what is fueling some of the hate (the YouTube video is a great example). I feel bad for those people who have worked their ass off in their industry only to get raked through the coals for having fake followers. I would never accuse anyone of buying followers, but it would be something that would raise a red flag for me and spark me to ask a couple more questions before engaging in a relationship – personal or business.

      Your point about StatusPeople is valid – like so many tools in this space, people jump on the next best thing and take it as truth without examining what is underneath the hood. More effort needs to go into understanding how it works.

      Great discussion… thanks!!

  5. The best advice in all of this: present your best, most honest work to the world and good things will happen.

  6. Thanks for a well-rounded overview, Jamie. For those of us wearing the social media white hat, this is all just an amusing tremor in the force… I do agree with @40deuce that a lot more research is needed. Some of the services that suggest fake followers aren’t particularly transparent in their methods… but it’s nice to see that an awareness of the ‘underbelly’ of social engagement is coming to light.

    • Jaime Stein says:

      Thanks for the comment. It has been an amusing week and a fun one to watch. What’s life without a little drama! I think these are the growing pains that come with a developing industry. Hopefully we will have more transparent tools in our hands in the near future.

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