Follow You, Follow Me

Spambots are a bit of an occupational hazard on Twitter. If you’ve used the platform for any length of time you’ll be familiar with them. An account with an odd name follows you, quite often there will be a profile pic of a scantily-clad young lady, and the text will promise you sex or sexy photos. They’re easy enough to deal with – you just block and report them as spam and you forget about them. Within a few days the account’s suspended and that particular bot is no longer following you. They’re just part of the background noise.

Other spambots don’t bother following you. You just get a random tweet advising you that you’ve been photographed naked at a party and inviting you to click on a link, or telling you someone’s been saying bad things about you and inviting you to click on a link, or trying to sell you something and…well, you get the idea.

Recently, I’ve started getting spam tweets from people offering to increase the number of followers I have, for the small consideration of a few dollars. This has seemed such an absurd proposition that I’ve been ignoring them altogether, but over the past month or so I’ve started to become interested in the phenomenon.

The first I heard of anyone actually buying followers was the ‘Twitter Troll’ who posted abuse to Olympic diver Tom Daley. Somewhere among all the noise surrounding this tawdry little episode I noticed claims that ‘Rileyy_69’ had bought himself several hundred followers for about thirty quid, and that struck me. Who, I wondered, in their right minds would actually buy followers when the whole point of Twitter is to follow people and make friends and interact and be followed back?

It’s probably no great insight to say that we are, to a greater or lesser extent, a status-driven animal. Little things that set us apart from others matter, even if we’re not wholly aware of them. We have nice clothes, nice homes, nice cars, nice children. All these things hold a mirror of ourselves up to the world and announce ‘this is who we are, this is where we stand.’ We keep up with the Joneses, and if possible we try to edge ahead of them – but not too much; we are, after all, British, and it wouldn’t do to be ostentatious.

This seems to extend to the world of social media as well. It was recently announced that a ‘social media management company’ – and that, if nothing else, gives you a flavour of our times – has come up with a program which checks how many fake followers a Twitter account has.

This is likely to be a bit of a neutron bomb for the likes of Rileyy_69 who spend a few tens of pounds to make themselves look rather more significant than they really are. It’s a bit more of an embarrassment for well-known figures with high follower-counts, but it doesn’t necessarily mean those fake followers have all been bought – the better-known someone is on Twitter, the more likely they’ll be to attract spambots. I’m also a bit dubious of extending StatusPeople’s figures across a person’s entire follower-count. Their program apparently only analyses the most recent 100,000 followers. If it reveals that 70,000 of President Obama’s most recent followers are fake or inactive accounts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that 70% of all his followers are fake.

I’m more interested, though, in the industry behind it all. According to the Telegraph article there’s a UK-based company selling followers at £13 for 500. The company buys these followers from a company in the US, which buys them from a student near Delhi, who gets his fake profiles from ‘vendors around Asia.’

This interests me because, in a roundabout way, I think I brushed up against this sort of world recently. As part of my wife’s research for a new business, we watched a webinar not so long ago about how to make money on Twitter. It was basically a scheme for setting up a spambot network – and it gave me a little insight into how these things work – but one thing struck me. The woman giving the talk spoke of hiring people in Asia to run your spambots. These people would have to be trained in her ‘special method’ – the details of which you had to pay for – and she mentioned a certain jobs website you could go to and hire these people, and then you just sat back and watched the money roll in.

As you all probably know, I’ve been out of work for a couple of years now, and money is getting very tight and I reasoned that if there was a site out there offering people various online jobs it might be worth checking out. If it was just hiring out spammers I hadn’t lost anything, but if there was more legitimate work then I could put myself forward for it.

I won’t tell you the name of the website because I don’t have any particular axe to grind with them, but there was legitimate-seeming work there. People wanted stuff ghost-written and research done and so on. I registered, tentatively, and not so long afterward I got an offer of a copy-typing job.

Now, I’m quite a fast, competent copy-typist and the job was offering a reasonable amount of money, so I replied to it and within a couple of hours I got a reply.

It turned out to be a Captcha farm. You’ll have seen Captchas, those barely-legible strings of words and numbers you have to type in in order to identify yourself as human and access some web pages and services. The job was to sit and type Captchas, over and over again. The more you typed, the more money you earned, but to start earning money you had to get up over a thousand or so and you had to keep going for hours and hours at a time. After a couple of days, I’d earned less than three dollars – well below the threshold at which you started to be paid – and I gave up.

I have no idea what the Captchas were for. It’s probable they were a subcontracted part of the reCAPTCHA Project, or maybe I was helping calibrate security for various websites. It crossed my mind that I might have been helping to spam those websites by gaining access to them, and that was another reason I stopped.

Anyway, the job site seems to have been a recruitment centre for various online mills and farms. I’m presuming sites like this are the source of the labour which produces fake Twitter accounts, to be sold on to an ‘agent’ in India, to be sold on to a company in the US, to be sold on to a company in the UK, to be bought by the likes of ‘Rileyy_69.’

This is nothing new, of course. Third World sweatshops have been producing goods for the West for years, but it seems to me that this is pandering to an odd, new and entirely intangible kind of vanity. The fact that it exists at all must mean that follower-counts are important to enough people to make it worthwhile, which I find strange.

I suppose there is some value in a high follower-count if you’re running a business account on Twitter. If you have an online shoe-shop and its Twitter account only has six followers, it doesn’t look very good. Similarly for professional people. For the rest of us? Possibly it appeals to something within us which makes us want to appear popular. Most people I know on Twitter don’t seem to care one way or another how many followers they have – the experience itself, the connection, is the thing – but I can see how the numbers game might become important to some.

It’s not as if it’s even difficult to do. All you need is a few quid and a little bit of patience. If you wait a while, someone will be in touch to make you an offer.

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