On Daisie, the recently launched social media app co-created by Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams, the layouts of individual profiles look remarkably similar to those on Instagram, complete with a circular photo and short bio, followed by recently posted photos. But there is one noticeable difference: Above the "Follow" button, there are no follower counts indicating how many people someone follows or how many people follow them.
The absence of these vital statistics on the social media app, which is geared towards the artistic community, was deliberate: "When you have this reward-based system where you have view counts and followers, you start creating things those followers want, rather than creating things yourself as an artist," Williams told Refinery29.
Throughout much of social media's short lifespan — remember, Twitter only launched in 2006 and Instagram in 2010 — follower counts have been seen as a form of social currency, equated with credibility, influence, and, of course, actual money (i.e. #sponcon). They have fueled an online popularity contest that rivals middle school cliques.
But over the course of 2018, follower counts have taken several major hits that have begun to wear away at the rigid faith once placed in the numbers at the top of the screen. While these figures will always have importance in the online influence arena, a shift in attitudes about them could change the way we interact online for the better.
The evolving focus on follower counts began in late January, when The New York Times published its investigation into what it called “social media’s black market”: The scarily easy, inexpensive, and widespread practice of buying fake followers. Although it has long been known that anyone can buy followers (you only need to do a simple Google search to see the companies offering them), the NYT outed public figures engaging in the practice in a way that hadn't been done before: The report, which included the names of actors, athletes, influencers, and prominent media figures who had purchased followers, had serious offline implications.
For the first time, having a high follower count didn’t necessarily work in everyone’s favor. Film critic Richard Roeper, for example, was suspended by his employer, the Chicago Sun-Tribune, after his inclusion on that list of buyers.
Once the massive scale of the fake follower trade was put under the microscope, tech companies were forced to be more transparent about the challenges of dealing with fakes and the steps they were taking to fight them. In May, Facebook published its first community standards enforcement report, revealing it had disabled 583 million fake accounts in the first quarter of 2018. False influence was more than just a nuisance, it was a threat to democracy.
Twitter followed suit in July, when the company announced some users with “larger follower counts” would “experience a more significant drop” as the platform purged bots. Overnight, A-lister accounts saw their follower counts drop by millions. Some users lamented the losses, referencing the impact it could have on their bottom line.
Although anyone can experience fluctuations in follower counts, these are usually observed when someone posts something others disagree with (this week, for example, some people saw drops after posting Nike's activism-focused "Just Do It" campaign), or when taking a social media hiatus. For the most part, these are small shifts. The large scale of Twitter's purge, meanwhile, and its impact on high-profile individuals, made it newsworthy.
Popularity isn't just a numbers game — even if the numbers will always be there.
Platforms are making it clear they won't tolerate fakes, even if it means outing prized A-list users. As a result, it isn't just the numbers themselves that are suffering — the market value of the follower count is not what it once was, either. This is true both for followers and the companies who hire influencers.
“The blind belief and focus on the follower counts is going away,” Neil Waller, the co-founder and CEO of Whalar, an influencer marketing platform, told Refinery29 over email. “People are learning that it's not only possible to manipulate these, but that it's not the real metric that should be focused on.”
Instead, Waller says, “the focus is shifting to a much more qualitative assessment” that looks at who someone’s audience is and how engaged they are, a determination that comes more from meaningful comments, rather than overall follower count.
The increasing focus on engagement is particularly evident in a new feature Twitter is trying out. Last week, Slate reported that the company tested a tool that suggested accounts to unfollow. Twitter confirmed the test, adding in a statement, “We know that people want a relevant Twitter timeline. One way to do this is by unfollowing people they don’t engage with regularly.”
If it is officially rolled out, the feature would help to reframe the logic still ingrained in follower counts: Having more followers is better, no matter what the cost might be.
All of this begs a larger question: Should follower counts disappear altogether? After all, they’ve resulted in problems with bad actors hawking fake accounts and exhaustion and stress from the publishers and influencers who attempt to not only maintain, but continue to grow their numbers. There’s also the negative, reward-based element mentioned by Williams, not to mention an underground economy platforms don't want operating on their watch.
While it might be easier if follower counts went away, this wouldn’t, ultimately, be a solution to the larger problems at hand. It certainly wouldn’t mean an end to fake accounts, many of which exist for reasons more nefarious than boosting follower figures (see, election interference on Facebook). Follower numbers, whether they appear at the top of profiles or not, will always have some significance online:
“At the end of the day, for anyone publishing content, be it an influencer publishing on Instagram, a journalist publishing to their respective publication, or a filmmaker putting out a film, the reach of that content is always going to matter and so in that sense follower numbers matter as well,” Waller says. “Generally speaking the larger the audience for your content the more successful you can be. I suspect people will always be struggling and striving to increase their audience.”
Still, he believes the shift in thinking about follower counts could result in a healthier, more positive online environment, especially for influencers, as the emphasis on engagement pushes users to focus on posting more meaningful, high-quality content. It isn't so much about how many users are looking at your posts as it is about the impact they have on people. Popularity, then, isn't just a numbers game — even if the numbers will always be there.
“Yes, [influencers] still need to work hard to grow their audience as any publisher on any medium would, but they are not having to worry so much about 'playing the game' for fear of losing out," Waller says. "Regardless of audience size, if they are publishing great content that is being enjoyed and trusted by their audience, no matter how big it is, there will always be a value in it."