I’ve written previously about the chemical reaction in our brains that releases dopamine when we get a “like” on a post or someone we admire follows us… but what about the numbers?
This week, I was watching one of my trashy internet drama videos (we all have guilty pleasures), and there was a story about a famous TikTok star who was hosting a big house party. On the door, bouncers were asking people to show their “Follower Count” to gain entry to the exclusive event. She’s since refuted this, stating she just wanted security to confirm she followed (and therefore knew) everyone who entered. But, in this day and age, it wouldn’t surprise me if your follower count did qualify you to attend events. We’re just a hop, skip and a jump away from China’s controversial social ranking system, after all.
So, how did we go from MySpace’s Top Six Friends to cult leader-level followings? And do you tie your self-worth to your follower count? Or have you escaped the pull of chasing that next big 1,000?
Since many of us who are millennials and older were familiar with the concept of “adding friends” from our MySpace days, the transition to Facebook at around 2007-08 felt natural as it felt like a more mature version of Tom’s creation (oh, how times have changed.)
And then, in the early 2010s, many of us moved over to Twitter and/or Instagram, both of which employ “followers” as the key metric, rather than “friends.” The psychological shift here is undeniable. While many people did become Facebook friends with people they didn’t know in real life, the rise of Twitter and Instagram was really the first time that our mindless ramblings were seen by more than just our immediate circle.
Both platforms boast functionalities that mean anyone can go viral. An appearance on Instagram’s Explore page could yield thousands of new followers with over 200 million people scrolling it every day. Similarly, if your tweet is picked up by someone with a bigger following than you, or even a Verified Account, you could go viral, even if you have a pretty small follower count to begin with.
It’s worth mentioning here that this isn't always a good situation. One of the most examples of which is Justine Sacco, a former PR executive who tweeted a pretty terrible racist ‘joke’ before boarding a plane, only for it to go viral while she was in the air. In fact, #hasjustinelandedyet was trending worldwide and people even ventured to the airport in Cape Town to record her reaction as she opened Twitter to discover she had been publicly hung, drawn and quartered (and sacked, I believe).
If you spend any time on Twitter, you probably remember Sacco’s case as it is often recalled as the first case of ‘trial by Twitter.’ Although, one thing many reports often neglect to mention is that Sacco’s tweet didn’t start to spread rapidly until it was retweeted by Sam Biddle, the then-editor of Gawker’s tech industry segment. Biddle saw Sacco’s tweet and retweeted it to his 15,000 followers to highlight the disgustingly ignorant nature of her ‘joke’.
Without Biddle’s retweet, it would be safe to say that Sacco’s tweet would not have spread as fast as it did, nor would the story have grown beyond the platform and become an international news story. People tweet terrible jokes all the time, sometimes those jokes are racist, transphobic, ableist or a combination of all the above, but only a small percentage of them are ever really held to account.
So, while Sacco did not have a large follower count - someone who followed her did. Turning this example on its head, have you ever noticed someone you admire pop up as a new follower on your notifications? Have you ever commented on an influencer’s posts in the hope that they will return the favour and notice me senpai?
The only thing we want more than to be followed by our idols is to be our idols. And to get to that level of notoriety online, a hefty follower count is required. It’s no wonder that some influencers are caught buying followers to keep their numbers high. Without constant growth, they risk becoming irrelevant.
The mentality that followers = relevance has trickled down the normies, you and me. With our few hundred or even a thousand followers on Instagram, Twitter or both, we fall into the habit of checking our follower count, being disappointed if we lose one or two, and cheering when we hit a new milestone.
Firstly, we all lose followers from time to time. More often than not, it’s fake accounts that are deactivating or people on a “follow unfollow” streak to grow their own numbers. And even if someone unfollows you because they don’t like something you said… who cares? We should only follow accounts that serve us and it might be that someone decided they didn’t want to see any more photos of your dogs or read your 10-tweet-long threads about why everything they know about their industry is wrong.
Let’s face it, the number of people who follow you is completely arbitrary. It means nothing. It’s ones and zeros. But it’s not always easy to remember that when you hit another thousand and the dopamine is coursing through your system.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a milestone, especially if the account is affiliated with your business and you are raising your profile as someone worth knowing in the industry. But when it crosses a line into becoming something you worry about, or even obsess over, then it’s time to go outside and touch some grass.
Have you ever found yourself attaching your self-worth to your follower account? I’d love to know your thoughts on this! Ironically, you can find me on Twitter @ContentByTheSea or reply to this email for an old school chat.
🎤 We spoke at the North East Expo last week, sharing some wisdom on how to create content that converts.
That’s all from me this week, another busy one at CBTS HQ. As always, you can find me on Twitter or reply to this email for a chinwag.
Enjoyed this? You might like these past issues:
5 November: Consistency is overrated
27 October: Winter is coming whether you like it or not
20 October: I got sick
13 October: This girl is me
6 October: Everything is awful… or is it?
29 September: That’s dope
22 September: Have a word with yourself
15 September: Running changed my life
8 September: Okay, boomer
25 August: Bridezilla returns
18 August: Find your zen