There are two kinds of Twitter users: those who pay close attention to their follower counts, and those who are lying.
Okay, that’s not quite accurate. (It doesn’t account for the vast swathe of inactive Twitter users who aren’t paying attention at all.) But it’s not far from the truth, is it? Even non-sentient spambot accounts spend their time trying to gain as many followers as possible.
The Twitter follower count has become, in effect, the most played videogame on the planet. It’s a game few of us will admit to playing, or talk about in public, or even tweet about. But we’re playing it nonetheless.
When you’re trying to decide whether to follow someone on Twitter, does their number of followers factor in your decision (ie. if they have a lot, they must be worth following)? Do you ever sneak a look at friends’ or co-workers’ pages to see who has more followers, you or them? Have you ever tweeted something purely in the hopes of getting more followers via retweets? Have you watched closely as you zero in on a milestone, such as your first 1,000 followers?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you, my friend, are playing the game too. And now Twitter may be thinking about changing the rules altogether.
“The dream metric is really how many people see your tweet,” Twitter co-founder Ev Williams said at an event Monday night. That was in response to a question about whether Twitter should remove inactive and spam followers from your total, and simply list the number of active followers.
“I would endorse that … I think that’s a great idea,” Williams said, before proposing his alternate retweet metric as an even better idea. The former CEO remains on Twitter’s board.
If Williams is talking about it, you can guarantee the idea has been frequently batted around at Twitter HQ. The sheer weight of fake and inactive followers is not great for the company’s image. Even the @Twitter account itself has 33% fake followers, according to one count.
Every time a news story shows up with inactive followers in the headline, you can almost hear CEO Dick Costolo wincing. This time last year, GOP candidate Newt Gingrich was battling accusations that 92% of his followers were non-human. The truth turned out to be somewhat more nuanced. But it kicked off an endless round of stories about politicians and celebrities with masses of fakes in their flocks.
Option 1: Real Followers for Real People.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea, in theory, for Twitter to remove inactive users from their counts. The company already highlights the active user metric whenever it wants to update us on how many people are on Twitter, and tends to hide the total number.
So why not walk the talk when it comes to individual users? Because, to put it politely, the feces would really hit the rotator blades. Many of Twitter’s most prominent users would lose a third to a half of their followers; maybe more.
Lady Gaga and Barack Obama, two of Twitter’s most-followed users, would both see their counts drop by 70%. Mitt Romney wouldn’t fare much better, with a 50% drop. If Twitter did this before the election, it would be headline news across the planet, and the company would be accused of stepping into the race.
But any time it did it, the company would have to be fully braced for the impact. Think about it: 140 million people wake up one day with their videogame score changed by the referees. Your co-worker suddenly has more followers than you. Your favorite celebrity is having a meltdown. In the cacophony that follows, does anyone really hear the ref saying this system is more fair?
Option 2: The Retweet Metric.
Williams’ “dream metric” was deliberately vague. “How many people see your tweet” could mean a lot of things. How many times you’ve been retweeted ever, or in the last year? How many people have certifiably seen it, clicked on it, followed a link? Some algorithm that measures your influence on Twitter, like a Klout score?
One thing it would certainly mean: a rapid rise in retweeting, as those 140 million players once again attempt to game the system. It would also mean a rapid rise in users urging you to RT them.
If you’re already sick of tweets that start “RT if you agree!”, then Twitter may well become unreadable. Perhaps the algorithm needs to be smart enough to mark you down for indiscriminate retweet begging.
Option 3: All of the Above.
Twitter could also start to de-emphasize the follower count, by hiding it in plain sight. It could add those other metrics — retweets and active followers — right next to the regular count on your profile page.
There are a couple of problems with that approach, though. The first is that it would be almost as bad as simply replacing your follower count with active followers. It’s not like people can’t do the math, especially when there’s a videogame score at stake.
The rough number of fakes in your following could be calculated at a glance. Active followers would become the default metric anyway — and if your total follower count is significantly larger, that would be socially embarrassing in itself. Total followers could well become a negative score.
Secondly, a company that sees Apple as a mentor is not likely to want to clutter up its design with any more elements. You have three numbers that tell the story of your account: your tweets, the people you’re following, who follows you. Anything more and the page starts to look like a NASA mission control dashboard.
How would you solve Twitter’s follower count problem? Give us your take in the comments.