faking it



Ten short years ago, “how many followers do you have?” was a question I could have only imagined being asked in the afterlife, in a conversation between Allah, Jesus and Buddha while Joseph Smith poured everyone kombucha. Sure, mere mortals might have had groupees or fans, but followerswas a term we reserved for major religious figures and also cult leaders. David Koresh had followers. Charles Manson had followers. Normal people did not have followers.


But here we are.


“You can totally tell he bought half those followers,” she said, scrolling through desert selfies and dessert portraits. “It’s so obvious.” Reading my blank face, my friend proceeded to illuminate the underground world of fake followers and the proper follower-to-like ratio for me, an easy to use formula to decipher whether or not an account has acquired more bots than humans. Because the internet, it turns out, is full of lies.


I’ve come to view social media the way a small child might look at a new pet turtle; it seems like it’s going to be so fun at first, but the more you play with it, the less it does for you until eventually you’re just standing over an empty shell, filled with sadness.


One Sunday morning this past January I dug into a long exposé in the New York Times on this business of fake followers. I was roughly seven cups of coffee and two-thirds of the way through the article when I decided to give it a try. Famous actors, musicians and our president had bought followers, why couldn't I? I was releasing a pilot soon, and I needed all the help I could get promoting it. If Russian bots could boost a carnival barker into the Oval Office, surely they could get some more eyeballs on what I assumed would be Judd Apatow’s next great find: me.


As soon as I clicked “buy,” I regretted it. I had bought 5,000 followers and 2,000 likes for my Twitter account for about forty dollars, which I assumed would be sprinkled out over a number of days and tweets. Had I bothered to finish reading the article, I would have known this was not how it worked.


Almost instantly, the followers started arriving by the dozens, then by the hundreds. Blank profile pictures with names like @mArY1234 and @bRiAnNAbC1000, following 798 people and followed by 2 people — all tell-tale signs there is no human manning the ship.

And then, just as quickly, the likes started. What I thought would be delivered over time and awarded to hilarious tweets I’d yet to write instead flooded a single post. My last tweet, a not particularly funny joke which hadn’t deserved or earned a single human like, now had exactly two thousand.


“It’s so obvious.”


For the rest of the day, I careened into a shame spiral, wondering how I had let myself get tricked into caring about any of this pixel-fabricated nonsense and strongly considering deleting all my accounts and heading to a monastery so I could take a good, hard look at who I had become.


The next day I woke up to an email from PayPal, alerting me that the debit card I had linked was from an old account, which meant they couldn’t process the last charge. Then came an email from the Fake Follower Company, saying if I didn’t complete the outstanding payment, they would cancel my followers. And the likes.


I could not be this lucky. I’m never this lucky.


But I was, because a couple days after that, all the mArYs and bRiaNs left my account, off to follow some other overly-caffeinated, needy actor and/or the leader of the free world. And I was left with my human followers, thanking Allah and Jesus and Buddha and reminding myself what’s really important: having a realistic follower-to-like ratio.


This is post #20/30 in a 500 Words-A-Day Challenge. Read them all here.