Got a few bucks to spare? It’s never been easier to buy a booster shot of social influence on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms.
“It’s somewhat of a taboo topic, yet everyone does it,” Gilad Lotan, chief data scientist at Betaworks, told Co.Design over email, reflecting on the gray area between “enhanced” credibility and digital deception.
Curious to better understand who shells out for social clout, and whether the resulting halo of popularity has staying power, Lotan decided to buy 4,000 Twitter followers on Fiverr and analyze the friendly bots who appeared in the no-frills visualization you see here.
“I remember feeling a rush of excitement as I saw notifications fly by showing more and more users following me,” he writes in a Medium post explaining his experiment, “even though I knew this was 100% fake.”
Lotan’s visualization is a data snapshot from the end of the experiment showing his organic network of followers alongside the mercenaries. The two groups are easy to spot. His initial 2,600 followers, represented by the blues and greens in the top cluster, are part of close-knit communities of interest that mirror Lotan’s professional and personal life. Circle size represents “in-degree within my network of followers”–in other words, overlap between the user’s followers and Lotan’s followers. The Fiverr newbies, shown in purple, are set apart from those original communities, and from one another. Their machine-generated likes and dislikes are nearly random.
With the data mapping complete, Lotan created an aggregate list of the Twitter users his bots followed–in other words, buyers like him. “I found DJs, musicians, fashion designers, comedians, politicians, real estate services, banks, marketers, and brands,” he writes on Medium. If Google trend data is any indication (see script below), buying followers is increasingly standard practice for entrepreneurs and freelancers looking to appear “above the fold” in search results and build a business.
Lotan’s experience suggests that they’re onto something. He saw his Klout score rise as a result of his new followers, which in turn improved his Bing search rank. “My completely fake numbers on one platform had a very real effect on a completely different service.” His conclusion: “acquiring just the right amount, as much as I hate to write it, may have a positive long-term effect on acceleration of growth and visibility.”
Moreover, while some bots have disappeared in the months since he started his experiment, they have helped build momentum that feels, well, natural. Lotan’s current follower count: 12,700 and rising.