Surely, no one who’s used Twitter for more than about a month can have failed to observe the insidious and disengaging deluge of #FF tweets at the end of each working week. #FF stands for Follow Friday, and at face value, it’s a selfless gesture in which a user kindly promotes other people’s accounts – urging the Twittersphere to follow them. But is Follow Friday really as selfless as it looks? Does it actually work? And why, given that social media is the ultimate encapsulation of me-culture, do so many people apparently take time out of their hard-line “ME! ME! ME!” campaigns to actively promote users they barely know?..
The first indicator to take on board is that the direct promotional effect of #FF Follow Friday tweets is minimal. If you know a little about how promotion works, you’ll know that simply telling people to do something without providing any motivation (which is essentially what Follow Friday does) is a non-starter. Indeed, in practice, even fairly high-profile and influential Twitter users say that whilst they’re mentioned in masses of #FFs, the messages rarely or even never convert into actual follows.
#FFs can work to a limited degree when they’re presented to a substantial audience and single out one person – explaining why that individual is worth following. This, however, is not typically the way #FFs are used. Typically, they group together a range of usernames in one tweet, and tell the audience nothing. Your average #FF tweet appears as a mass of links, and is unlikely even to be read by anyone who isn’t mentioned in it – let alone acted upon. It looks like spam, and that’s how a potential reader will see it. It’s little wonder the standard #FF doesn’t work.
The second observation regarding #FF Follow Fridays is that when studied as a ‘big picture’, the tide of promotion generally runs in the wrong direction. Rather than being issued by a user with masses of followers, to promote a user with only a few followers, Follow Fridays tend to do the opposite. In other words, most #FFs are issued by people with only a relatively small audience, to promote people with a considerably larger audience. It seems ridiculous for a user with a following of 50 to be spending half of Friday promoting users with 10,000 followers plus, but that’s the general trend. It’s tweeps with no influence and barely any audience, ‘promoting’ tweeps who are very well-established and clearly don’t need that promotion.
So what’s actually going on here? Well, the reality of #FF messaging conforms not to the paradigms of third-party promotion, but to the paradigms of self-promotion.
SELF-PROMOTION AND THE TOOLS OF PROGRESS
By and large, people don’t open social media accounts to help other people. They open them to help themselves. Users are not there to explore their interests. They use Google to explore their interests. The reason they’re posting on sites like Twitter is to revel in their own self-importance and fish for ego-massage. Indeed, the consistency of the selfishness across social media serves as quite a staggering and depressing lesson on human nature. I fully include myself in that, by the way.
If you want to make progress in a me-bubble hell-hole, it’s no use talking about yourself. People aren’t there to talk about you. They’re there so you can make a big deal of them. So to move forward on the social networks, you don’t try to demonstrate how wonderful you are, you try to demonstrate how wonderful you think other people are. That’s the currency. That’s how you get noticed.
The main tools of progress on social media are entirely in keeping with this, and are incredibly simple. They’re little electronic taps on the shoulder that say: “Wow! I think you’re great!”, and then rely on social duty to prompt a reciprocal morsel of attention. Favourites, Follows, Listings (groan), Paper Li mentions (bigger groan) – most of it has nothing to do with appreciation, and everything to do with attracting reciprocal attention. #FF Follow Fridays fall into the same general category.
WHY DO #FFs PERSIST IF THEY DON’T WORK?
The short answer is that Follow Fridays do work. They’re not promotional, but they are REVERSE promotional.
Reverse promotion is the act of appealing to someone else’s ego and/or sense of social duty in order to get them to promote you. The idea is to look like you’re promoting them, but build a social pressure into your action, which persuades them to promote you. Good reverse promotion goes beyond a plain hope of reciprocation and runs into the territory of creating an actual vested interest.
Follow Fridays are actually quite clever in the way they meet the above criteria. They differ from the other basic tools of self-promo on Twitter. A Follow Friday doesn’t just say: “Hey, I think you’re great!”. It says: “Hey, I think you’re great, and LOOK WHAT I DID FOR YOU!”. But it goes even beyond that. What it does in addition, is it provides the person or people being mentioned with a little electronic love letter, which they can, if they so choose, show off to all of their own followers. All they need do is click the Retweet button, and they publicise the fact that someone else thinks they’re pretty damn cool. Simultaneously, this nets a Retweet for the original issuer of the message, which in turn promotes them – precisely what they were aiming for.
Even if that RT is only read and passed on by the users mentioned in the tweet, it can still have a minor viral effect and prove beneficial for the original poster. It’s the careful association of the different names placed in the message which has the effect. The more users included in that single tweet, and the more carefully the names are chosen, the more potential there is for viral spread. Now you know why so many #FFs are packed to capacity with usernames.
The classic indicator of reverse promotion is that the promoter needs the publicity much more than the people they’re ‘promoting’, and that’s borne out time and again with Follow Fridays. #FF Follow Fridays, then, are primarily a means of reverse promotion. They don’t often work at face value, but they do often work in a measured sense for the people issuing them, who in any case will typically have quite modest expectations in terms of attention gain.
Once again, cloaked self-interest wins the day on social media.