As Tony Montana nearly said, “In this business, you gotta get the fans first. Then, when you get the fans, you get the power”.
Self-styled social media experts have taken this to heart, dedicating all their efforts to building up armies of followers and becoming the bane of many a Twitter feed, divulging such well-kept industry secrets as ‘Twitter is important’ or ‘Facebook is an essential platform’ to their hundreds of thousands of followers. The real question is this: how on earth do these guys build up such an enormous army of followers without tweeting anything of interest?
This brings us neatly to the curious case of Santiago Swallow: the 42 two year old, Mexican-born, American quickly became the darling of the tech world. He gave speeches about social media at SXSW and at TED, and his forthcoming book was to ‘define a generation’. His follower count rose sharply to 85,000 on Twitter; prominent journalists and bloggers were hailing him as a social media messiah. The only problem was, he didn’t exist.
A high number of Twitter followers can be a red herring. There are numerous companies that sell followers for a small fee (1p per follower appears to be the going rate), allowing people and businesses to seem more important or popular than they really are. A recent story saw Justin Bieber exposed for having nearly 20 million fake followers. Unlike Bieber though, Santiago Swallow was a creation, and leant heavily on fake followers to build up credibility.
A British technology expert, Kevin Ashton, created Santiago as a way to show how easily the internet can be tricked, and if Kevin Ashton managed it in his spare time, you can bet that more dedicated fraudsters will have done better jobs which will be undiscovered to this day. Why would anyone do such a thing? It’s simple: followers mean power, and a person who is perceived to have an audience of millions appears to be more influential than someone tweeting to hundreds. It’s balderdash of course, as influence is affected by much more than follower numbers, but as Santiago Swallow demonstrates, it’s surprisingly easy to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. The lesson: don’t put too much faith in follower counts!