Twitter followers as The Emperor’s New Clothes

Before I get into the meat of my post, here’s a full disclosure: I have considerably fewer followers on Twitter than the threshold quoted below, so read on with however big a pinch of salt you deem necessary!

Rob Hart recently wrote a great article over on LitReactor about the enormous tidal wave of spam generated by self-publishing authors desperate to shine a light on their books. (Link: ) As someone who has largely resisted the tactic, and having witnessed a few interesting genre fiction related groups on Facebook sadly spammed into oblivion, Rob’s rant really struck a chord with me. There was one small part near the end I took issue with, however, which I’ve emboldened below:

And don’t take advice from anyone who has less than 1,500 followers on Twitter (or if the number of people they follow outnumbers the number of people who follow them back).”

It’s not necessarily the arbitrary number quoted above I have a problem with. It’s the idea that follower counts are deemed a reliable indicator of what is really going on in Twitter.

Twitter, yesterday
Twitter, yesterday

Now, unless I have missed a briefing or two (which is possible – I’ve dramatically dialled down my exposure to social media in light of the many, many, many, many, manymanymanymany screaming outrages that used to flare up every half an hour), I was under the impression that everyone on Twitter was fully aware of the following nugget of wisdom, and so it feels like I’m about to tell everybody that water is a bit soggy, but here goes.

Follower counts are unreliable. Simple. As. That.

No, really. You’ll find more truth in Zimbabwe’s election results. It therefore irks me when I see credence attached to that little number on the screen, and, stepping away from Rob’s post, it really grinds my gears when the maintenance of said high-score is posited as a crucial means of getting on in the publishing world. You see this bullshit confidently spun from a hundred and one self-proclaimed “experts” who profess telling the same to that creative writing class they all seem to teach. Questions asked of agents and publishers often concern the size and reach of a prospective author’s social media presence, as if its importance trumps the quality of the story they’re trying to sell. (The answer is always the same, by the way: “It’s only ever about the story, kiddo.”) Then, at the extreme end of the scale, there’s the idiotic “game-ification” of Twitter. For example, my latest follower’s bio brazenly offers me 5,000 Twitter followers for $29. Ooh, yes please. I can then strike “Tweeting to a shitload of bots” off my bucket list.

Even when you discount the bots, however, follower counts are about as reliable as a politician’s promise. How so? Well, before I get to that, let’s consider a famous example of Twitter in action, being Stephen Fry’s account. At the time of writing this, he is currently being followed by nearly 7,000,000 accounts, and is himself following a staggering 51,500 accounts.

Now, as any Twittererer will know, following a mere 100 accounts is enough to clog up anyone’s timeline. (Some people seem to have a twitchy trigger finger on that old “Retweet” button.) Therefore how on earth can anyone keep abreast of 51,500 accounts? The simple answer is, of course, that they don’t.

They use lists.

For the uninitiated, lists allow you to bunch Twitter accounts into categories for easy perusal. For example, I have separate lists for friends and family, authors and writers, professionals within the publishing industry, and so on. Lists can be visible to the public, or kept for private use. (All of mine are private.)

Now here’s an uncomfortable truth that might see me lose a couple of my scarce few followers. I only ever view Twitter through my lists. I never, ever look at my timeline, and I’d be utterly staggered if I’m in the minority in doing so. So, in short, having someone follow you, or counter-follow you, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ever see anything you tweet, and thus the value of that follower count is weakened.

But there’s more. Amazingly, adding a Twitter account to a list does not make you a follower of that account. They do not show up in your “following” count, nor do you show up in their “followers” count. I recently made some off the cuff remark about One Direction which then saw me automatically added to some public “One Direction Fans” list. (I’m sorry, New Kids On The Block, they mean nothing to me, honest!) Needless to say my follower count didn’t tick higher and I cried on the toilet for days as a result.

So there you have it, folks. The next time you see anyone attach significance to the number of people following their every word, be sure to sound that bullshit buzzer long and hard at them. I’ll be sure to do the same.

Laters, ‘taters.