Somewhere along the line you reach this point of critical mass when strangers start showing up as followers all on their own. Although as of writing I have a mere 186 followers, not a good showing at all by Twitter measures, I appear to have hit that point. Every day I'm added by one or more people who I don't know and have never encountered and have no good reason to know who I am or what I have to say in 140 characters or less.
Some of them may be legit. Maybe they're readers of the Tim Callan on Marketing and Technology blog who have subscribed to the Tim Callan Twitter feed to see the new posts when they come out. That may be, for a few, but no way people in this number are wandering in on their own for that reason.
No. Rather, these people are using the accepted best practice of subscribing to other people's Twitter feeds in hopes of getting them to subscribe to one's own as well. If you buy the social marketing how-to books, they'll all tell you to do exactly that. Well, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of people appear to be buying these books.
Let's take one of the several from today as an example. I'm not trying to libel anyone, so for our purposes I'll just call him J. J. subscribed to my feed today out of the clear blue. J follows 1386 people and is followed by 935. He's a marketing hired gun, and my guess is he found me by looking at a list I'm on or because I am followed by (or more likely am following) a tweeter who is J's ideal target market.
So yes, that's another follower for me. Manna from the Twitter gods, I suppose. But on the other hand, I don't actually delude myself that J will ever read any of my tweets, let alone click the bit.ly to get to my blog and then read my posts and be affected by them and change his behavior as a result. I suppose it's possible, but I'm not holding my breath.
For me that doesn't matter because I wasn't seeking to add a follower. It's irrelevant. But let's look at J's behavior. J is out there adding Twitter feeds to his list in hopes of picking up extra followers who will reciprocate this behavior. I don't tend to follow strangers just because they followed me, but others might. So let's just say that it works, and this method yields a return follow often enough that it's an efficient way to add followers. I'm prepared to assume that's the case.
So what? What is the value of incrementing your Twitter score if it doesn't actually have any effect on extending your influence or brand name? Sure, it would be great if I could have more than 1200 targeted influencers hanging on my every word and all I had to do was sit and click buttons in Twitter all day. That would be marvelous indeed. Too bad it's not true.
I see a lot of this behavior with services like Twitter and LinkedIn. The effort of incrementing a score for its own sake. How many of us really have 2000 people to whom we need to be LinkedIn? How many of us genuinely can follow 20,000 Twitter self-publishers and gain any value from them? Damn near zero, that's how many.
So why do people do it? It's the illusion of progress, just like Mafia Wars. In Mafia Wars and all the other Zynga games I've (briefly) experienced, the exercise is to increment your score for its own sake. If you're a level 1000 gangster, you need to get to 1001. If your farm has a million dollars in the bank, you need to get to two million. Nothing actually changes in the game when you do. No exciting and interesting new challenges open up to you when you hit the milestone. Instead you make your number larger, larger than it's ever been before.
This false accomplishment isn't unique to video games, however. You see it in the link gathering or friend gathering activity I described above. In the real world accomplishment is hard. Having successful careers and marriages, raising good children, educating yourself, purchasing homes and cars, staying thin and healthy, all these things are difficult to do. They require talent and more than a little luck and above all sweat equity. They require work, and they take time, and they bring heartache, and sometimes they fail.
That's one of the reasons, I believe, that games are popular. I can play Mafia Wars or World of Warcraft or (my personal recent favorite) Fallout 3, and I can be highly confident that success is available to me in the near future if I just work at it. Much easier than my job and my personal life and all those other things.
And we see the same with these social networking sites. If you're supposed to be a marketing consultant but business is a little slow, you can sit there and link to thousands of people and tell yourself you're accomplishing a goal. If you're a writer and can't get anyone to read your novel, you can build a list of Twitter followers and imagine you're promoting yourself.
But it isn't genuine accomplishment. It's false accomplishment, illusionary accomplishment. It's no more useful, really, than being a high level in Mafia Wars.