News of the Twitter app StatusPeople has been spreading around the Internet as people plug in Twitter handles to see how many active followers a person really has; meaning, live people who are checking into Twitter regularly and therefore have the possibility of seeing your tweet. Spambots and inactive users who haven't checked into Twitter for a while are culled out of the number leaving you with a smaller number but a more accurate number in determining who is listening... sort of.
While most people are looking at this app in terms of how it relates to Internet influence or trying to figure out who purchased followers to inflate their number, I immediately started thinking about how this could lead to the ultimate game of Twitter smackdown: two members of the Twitterati enter with similar follower numbers and then we strip down the Twitter handle in the app to see who wins in active followers.
Or pretend we live in a dystopian society on the brink of a zombie apocalypse, and the only army you can amass to fight 12,000,000 of the undead are the active Twitter followers of Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome), or Justin Bieber (@justinbieber).
Neil Gaiman, by the way, has 1,753,633 followers. Stephen Colbert has 3,796,206. And Justin Bieber is pulling in 26,614,116.
You'd get a scorching case of Bieber fever and go with the teen heartthrob, outnumbering the zombies 2:1, right? But not so fast. If you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, you're going to have to pay attention to the small details. Notice I said active followers -- let's take a look at how many of those followers are actual human beings who log into Twitter regularly.
According to StatusPeople, only 41% of Gaiman's followers are active Twitter users. 15% of those 1,753,633 followers are robots and another 44% of the followers are inactive. Colbert has an equal percentage of actual users -- 41% -- though his robots (28%) and inactive (31%) break down differently. Lastly, Bieber clocks in with a lower 36% actual users (with 31% robots and 33% inactive). Making that 26,614,116 closer to 9,581,081. Still an impressive number. But if you had to fight 12,000,000 zombies and thought you'd have an enormous advantage with Bieber's original follower number, you'd be sorely mistaken. In fact, you are outnumbered and the zombies are most definitely eating your brain.
While this makes for a very amusing ten minutes of looking up people's actual Twitter followers, it also points out how numbers can't tell the whole story -- nor can this app. There has been a lot of speculation about people buying followers based on this app.
While the app can tell you how many robots are following the person, it cannot tell you whether those robots targeted that person and followed them by their own volition (not to imply that spambots are free-thinkers) or whether the person purchased them. There are plenty of times when I get a strange follower on Twitter who hasn't tweeted yet but is following 1000+ people and has zero followers. So that person would show up as a fake follower. Bieber has 31% robots following him, but there is no proof that he purchased these followers to inflate his number; there is a very real possibility that these robots chose to follow him, and he didn't block them.
As a side note, I don't have enough time in my life to block Twitter spambots. Unless Twitter gives them the boot, those strange followers are probably somewhere in my followers list.
And even an accurate number can't tell the whole story when it comes to influence. It can't tell you how many of those 9,581,081 will buy Bieber's next album (or how many would come to his rescue of the undead were closing in on him in a dark alleyway). It can't tell you the care people feel towards the person, how invested they are in what that person has to say.
If we just look at Twitter followers, we're not getting a strong sense of how or why people use Twitter. I am definitely more of a consumer than a talker on Twitter. I rarely tweet, though I read often. I am a Twitter listener; an idea collector. I click over sometimes when people tweet links to posts (though admittedly, I am more likely to click over to read something from a blog post than I am to click on a link from Twitter). But you can't know all of that just from a number.
Beyond that, a number can't tell you why I prefer to contain my thoughts on my blog vs. Twitter (a medium I use for funny things I hear, passing thoughts, or disseminating news/links). I want to own my words, own my ideas, and therefore, I don't like to post them on someone else's medium where they are housed solely in someone else's home. I want to know that no one can delete them except... me. I want to know that I can search for them later on, a feature that is difficult to navigate on a medium such as Twitter.
The story StatusPeople tells me is that we are so much more than numbers, and that it's impossible for an impersonal algorithm to determine our reach. To determine how much we matter to the people who read us. To know how many people listen to our recommendations or would actually come to our aid in the zombie apocalypse.
How do your actual numbers fare in StatusPeople's algorithm? And what story do you think those numbers tell?
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