“Dr Katz, are you an East Coast gangsta or a West Coast gangsta?” -Dave Attell
There is an old joke that says, On the East Coast they say it was a good day if they got a lot accomplished. On the West coast, they say it was a good day if they had an interesting conversation.
In that context, I am a West Coast kid to the end.
In the world of facebook, twitter, instagram and all the rest, it is all about numbers; that is to say the number of friends, and followers. When I first started managing websites for a company, around 1999, it was all about hits. ‘You got to have a lot of hits.’ Then, it dawned on the Internet community that hits were a bit misleading. Some of those hits could be attributed to web crawlers, the development team, and such things. So then the emphasis shifted to visits. ‘Sure you had a million hits, but that translated to only 150,000 visits.’
One hundred and fifty thousand visits is no trifling affair, but in any new and burgeoning market, people don’t really have a sense of what the numbers mean. “A million shares in your startup? Is that a lot?” “A million hits on my website? Is that a lot?” “Ten thousand facebook friends? Is that a lot?” Well, in the context of facebook friends or twitter followers, the question is perhaps best qualified in this way: Ten thousand real live humans? or 10,000 programmer-controlled internet robots (a.k.a. ‘bots’)?
Flash forward to 2015, and the term you will also see among SEO gurus these days is “engagement.” Granted, I may completely misunderstand what the gurus mean by engagement, but I take it to mean, ‘real live interactions with real live human beings. As opposed to bots.
Don’t Take It Personally, the Internet is a Crazy Place
There is a real and lucrative industry built up around the creation and exploitation of bots. Read a day in the life of a click farm, here. This article describes in summary fashion how having lots of followers will get you lots of followers; and having lots of followers may even translate into cash. So for those in a certain position to exploit their own fame, paying for followers can be a worthwhile proposition.
Anyone who has ever been followed by a suspiciously thinly fleshed out identity on social media, never to really hear from them again, or to receive unsolicited solicitations for pornography, mail order brides, miracle weight loss or the opportunity to help a Nigerian prince release his locked up inheritance, knows in substance what a bot is. It is a fake internet ID that will be used to somehow try and get money out of you. Fair enough; the internet is a crazy place.
I don’t keep a facebook account, and I don’t spend much time on twitter. I do keep a Google+ account. Now, I know that at the end of the day, no Internet Corporate Person is better than any other Internet Corporate Person, but I particularly dislike the overtly shifty way that facebook manages its users. And, at the end of the day, all that our free user accounts on these networks entitles us to is to work for them for free. We write for them for free, we click for them for free, spend our hard-earned cash on fancy cameras and phones, so that we can take pictures for them and upload them for free. And of course in the terms and conditions we waive any future rights over those articles and photos, just as if we were employees, except we don’t get paid. Fair enough; the internet is a crazy place.
On Google+, the de facto ranking is by number of followers. Someone who never uses their account (they were forced to create one when they signed up for Gmail) might have 5 followers. Someone who half-heartedly uses their account may have 500 followers. Someone like me who prostitutes myself to the Internet Corporate Person on a daily basis will have around a thousand followers. Someone like Ciro Villa, a software engineer who posts consistently about science and moderates the Space community, will have in excess of 100,000 followers. Some like Guy Kawasaki, a famous guru for entrepreneurship across the internet, will have in excess of seven million followers (as well as up to a dozen impersonators). And so it goes: if you want to have millions of followers online, appear on network television. If you want to be a big name on network television, have millions of followers online. Television, radio, and even traditional print have their share of crazy as well.
Boys Just Want to Have Fun
So over the summer, the big news for Google+ was first that it was dead. That was followed by the big news that it was not dead. To prove the point that there is no such thing as bad publicity, as a result of all this news, late in the summer Google+ came back to life, both in the good sense and in the bad sense. The internet scam masters got to work creating their fake profiles and following me like crazy.
So here I am with my 1000+ followers, doing my best, as I see it. I post an interesting article and make some introductory comment, and get absolutely no response. No engagement. No plusses, no comments. But what I do get, nearly every day, are new ‘people’ following me. These ‘people’ follow the exact same format described in the day in the life of bot, so I have finally learned not to even bother checking the profile to try and guess if they are real people. Now, there are real people who follow me, and I appreciate them. My estimate is that they are one out of ten. The situation I found myself in was that I was not lacking for followers, but I was severely lacking for engagement.
The approach I took was to not just post what was interesting to me, but to try and make meaningful commentary on the posts of those who I was already following.
And here is where the ginormous distinction between humans and bots — on any media platform — comes in. The real people I am following post interesting articles, micro-blog posts, or photographs; and when you comment on their post, they as often as not respond meaningfully, or at the very least say thank you for noticing. The bots however post the same sort of thing, over and over, and never respond when you comment on their post. And of course in most cases the bots never do it for long. A week or two is generally the maximum shelf life of a bot, as far as I have seen.
So for those who only want the bottom number, bots are great. Bring them on! I have two hundred million followers! But for those who want a meaningful conversation, the bots are more than an annoyance, more than a distraction. They are like weeds in the garden, and leaving them be won’t do.
And in taking this approach of giving more on social media than I was getting, I realized something: it only takes about one meaningful interaction per day to make me happy. And that is how I know that I am a West Coast kid to the end.
So In Conclusion
My conclusion is actually an aside, but given all that I have said and made reference to above, would it not be worth while… would it not be good fun… to take up the full time hobby of thwarting the efforts of social media bots? The down side I think would be that such a hobby would elicit cyberattacks from their evil masters. But in the absence of such attacks, it might be great craic.