When I was in middle school, my friend boasted tens of thousands of Instagram followers. I still remember feeling so cool when she tagged me in a photo and got me hundreds of new follower requests. There I was, a seventh grader, feeling more popular than ever, without having actually met a single person. My follower-to-following ratio was stellar. But was something as trivial and simple as an increase in my follower tally really enough to warrant such an ego boost?
Last week, The New York Times published an investigative piece about companies, like Devumi, that sell social media followers and likes. The article exposes several prominent figures—former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, model Kathy Ireland, for example—as Devumi clients. Companies like Devumi create fake Twitter profiles, known as bots, that follow and endorse a client’s tweets. Some bots are entirely made up while others are based on real people, literally stealing social identities from other Twitter users.
The piece is incredibly alarming and terribly revealing of social media deceit. For example, Jeetendr Sehdev, a self-proclaimed leading celebrity brander and former professor at USC, released a best-selling book one year ago, “The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells.” In the book, he writes, “authenticity is key.” But, given that The Times report found Sehdev purchased followers from Devumi in 2015, authenticity may be overrated.
The piece goes on to highlight many more stories, of celebrities who have used the service and of everyday people whose online identities were stolen and made into bots. Almost everyone felt cheated. The writers of the article warn readers about risks posed by this social media model, noting the influence of people with large follower counts. Social platforms like Twitter, the writers argue, are being incredibly deceitful to its users, investors, and advertisers by allowing for fake followers. While this is an important point, the writers fail to realize that what is most concerning about social media is not the fake followers themselves, but rather that social media followers matter so much to begin with.
We place immense meaning into social media follows and likes. There is a reason the social media managing job has grown so much in the last decade. But should social media clout matter as much as it does? If a platform’s purpose is to build community and bring people together, just look at Facebook and Instagram’s mission statements, is there even a need for a follower count to be displayed? You could find what your friends like and who your friends follow without a public follower and like tally.
The reason, of course, is social media platforms are not actually used for what Facebook and Instagram say they are used for. They reflect what people care most about. In a world prioritizing who you know, not what you know, social media is a fantastic opportunity to publicly display your connections. Who cares about building community when you’ve got 5,000 followers and only follow 500?
On a smaller and more banal level, many people our age use social media as a way to show others that they, simply put, have friends. Social media, in this case, functions as social capital; the more followers the more popular. For professionals, be they journalists, models, politicians, or whomever, a high follower count on social media can improve their brand. The more followers, the more money. This is what keeps people coming back to social media sites, and why companies like Twitter would never make follower tallies private. As long as people have a reason to come back to their application, advertisers have a reason to stick around.
Therefore, what is encouraged on social media is an increase in numbers, rather than actual substance. As long as my follower count is increasing, who cares whom I offend, and what beliefs I compromise? The problem, then, doubles onto itself. Whether it is a seventh grader who wants to show off her sneakers or a journalist hoping people read their work, the actual posts themselves will always be a means to increase followers and likes in the end. And what gets more attention than ideas of substance and logic? The answer: hot takes—unbelievably tone deaf opinions, and posts about nothing (read: Kim Kardashian’s new emoji). Those are the people who get followers. Have you seen Donald Trump’s tweets?
The problem, therefore, does not lie in social media itself, but rather how much value we put into it in the first place. In a perfect world, the people who make the posts that are most helpful, and insightful, most beautifully-written, and worthy, would be the ones with the most followers and likes. But the social media world, as it is, is far from a meritocracy. The people with the most followers do not have the answers. They aren’t the people we should necessarily listen to first. Let’s stop acting like they are.
Raf Goldstein is a member of the class 2021. Raf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.