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This kind of short-term jockeying for incremental success used to be confined to sales and finance. There, a smarmy or even deceitful aggression designated an enterprising go-getter. But now everyone’s a hustler—in their day jobs, in their moonlighting (we call them “side hustles” now), and even in their personal lives. Hobbies have become latent instruments for future renown or profit: If you make crafts, you should have an Etsy store. If you make short films, you should monetize them on YouTube. Even social media—especially social media, maybe. There’s a reason that a “hustle” is a synonym for a con or grift; once you’re hustling, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll bend the norms to achieve the gain they would otherwise prohibit.
Today, everything is sales before it is anything else. For that reason, there is no such thing as a fake follower. The ideal follower might become an audience for an account’s ideas, influence, products, and services. But first, a follower has a more basic purpose. It increases a number on a profile, in the hope that this new number might increase further still. It is a tragic march toward its own meaningless, endless repetition.
And yet, it is also a social practice popular enough that it bears legitimate, if perverse, meaning. Back in 2014, the data scientist Gilad Lotan published an analysis of his own experiment buying followers. For $5, he added 4,000 bots to his account, more than doubling his follower count at the time (he’s up to 18,000 today). As a data scientist, Lotan demonstrated that these followers were of little to any actual value to him personally or professionally. They were disconnected from his organic network of contacts, and they were also disconnected from one another.
And yet, they delivered actual value, too. Lotan reported that his Klout score, a measure of online social influence, increased. Microsoft had invested in Klout, and it began using the service’s data in its Bing search engine. Thus, the new followers increased Lotan’s rank in Bing searches. It also made him feel good. “Even though I knew this was 100 percent fake, the thrill excited me,” Lotan writes, “and at the end of the process, having over 6,000 followers, in all honesty, felt really great.”
Therein lies the hard truth about fake followers. They’re not backed by human actors, but neither are a large number of Twitter accounts that have been abandoned but still get counted. Sometimes they are counterfeit, pretending to be real people, like Salle Ingle, who might experience real professional confusion or personal pain as a result. But the effect of fake followers often remains indistinguishable from supposedly real ones. Back in the 20th century, the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard called this state of affairs “hyperreality”—a duplicate of the real that is not a copy, but a truth in its own right.