I recently discovered something about Twitter that blew my little mind. I've been struggling along for about 6 months now, trying to rustle up a following that doesn't get anywhere near the heady heights of my Facebook "friends" list, when all I needed to do was buy my followers. Why did I never think of it before? For $99, I could be more popular than the Church of Scientology on Twitter. And that's the dream, right?
Here I am, reaching out to my meagre but loyal following of 68, with the odd thought provoking tweet or funny picture, promoting my articles or RT-ing the wise Tweets of others. Every RT I get myself feels hard earned, and the satisfaction gained from attaining a new follower is akin to how I used to feel when, as a 14-year-old, I managed to get a girl to talk to me. Sadly but truly, it makes me feel like I'm being validated.
If we are being honest, this sense of validation is one of the main reasons that social media is now such a dominant part of people's lives. It is very addictive, and very sad. So how great does it feel to buy a mass of followers? After you have paid for your following, who are these thousands of Twitter minions? Will they be waiting with bated breath for your next 140 character masterpiece? No. They are drones, basically fake accounts set up purely to be a number on somebody's follower count. They are easy to spot: they have no followers, no tweets, and often their avatars are either the default 'Twitter egg' or a face that doesn't fit with the gender of their name.
Why do it? The drones can't read your Tweets. They're not people. And even if they were, they wouldn't care, because they only follow you because you bought them. Where is the sense of precious validation to be found? What it actually comes down to is a simple marketing trick, and it makes a lot of sense.
Take the rule of choosing a restaurant. Do you go into the bustling restaurant or the empty one? The general rule of thumb is that the busy restaurant is popular because the food is better, whereas the empty one is empty for a reason, and should therefore be avoided. If you see witty Tweets from two different Tweeters, there is every chance you will follow the person with 100,000 followers over the person with 28. One has all the followers, and whilst this isn't proof they have something interesting to say, many will take this as an indicator.
Everybody from catering companies to record labels, celebrities to politicians are jumping on this simple marketing tool. It makes them look like they have well established customer/fan bases. This is not limited to Twitter. You can buy Facebook 'likes' for your pages. Or how about a million YouTube views for your client's new video? In fact, average mortal, if you had enough money - and the warped inclination - you could buy for yourself an online presence that would match the biggest celebrities in the world.
Does this mean the end of talent? If you can buy your online following - which is such an important measure of popularity in the modern world - does marketing nous now trump actually having something to say? It is very easy to be cynical about this, but I would say no.
People pay to get ahead. Take the example of a delivery business. The service might be excellent, but if the website is rubbish people won't trust it. So you pay a web developer to make you a smart, professional looking website, which gains the trust of potential customers. Conversely there may be a number of shoddy delivery businesses who make a living because they paid for professional websites in the first place. Once they are found out, they will lose their customers.
These are age-old concepts of basic marketing, and mixed with the current importance of a social media and online presence, this technique has probably grown in proportion with the swell of popularity surrounding social media itself.
In the self-promoting, social media obsessed world in which we must live, there is one important lesson we should always bear in mind. Just as you never judge a book by its cover, never judge a Tweeter by their follower count.