Cargo-Cult Influence is the inevitable product of simplistic social media numbers

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Ian Bogost’s response to the NYT piece on fake followers is a compelling read, and makes an insightful point:

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. 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.

The moment we started attaching these simple numbers to social media accounts, we created this market for influence. And yes, you can track it back to the blog days where people proudly displayed the number of RSS feed subscribers on their site. But there was a difference in effort between a blog post and an Instagram image or a tweet. The easier we make cargo-cult influence to measure, the easier to fake it gets.

And once you create that environment, we see the behaviours the we’ve seen on both Twitter and Instagram: a shift from sharing and conversing to fighting for attention. After all, you get wha5 you measure, so if you give people follower counts, Likes and Retweets, they’ll optimise their behaviour for it, What was once social media becomes a fierce battleground for status, in which no prisoners are taken.

No wonder Twitter has grown so unpleasant.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.