At the beginning of 2015 I addressed the question of hiding the Follower count on Twitter. In the light of Twitter’s more recent consideration of scrapping the Like button, I’m revisiting the subject of public popularity counts, and asking whether it’s time for the platform to wipe them out entirely.
This article is not suggesting that Twitter gets rid of Like buttons, Retweet buttons, notifications relating to the use of those buttons, or summary data for the poster of the content. It’s suggesting that Twitter removes the public display of Like, Retweet, Reply and Follower/Friend counts. The numbers.
WHY ARE ENFORCED PUBLIC POPULARITY COUNTS BAD?
The logic behind forcibly displaying social media users’ popularity counts to the public, is that it strongly motivates platform growth. Crudely put, it shames people into importing fans/friends, or labouring to engage a native audience. In both scenarios, the social sites gain something for nothing. They either gain new users for zero advertising expenditure, or they gain human labour, which will collectively bring a level of value to the platform. Value on the back of which the platform can run ads. That’s the power of shame.
But shaming people also causes adverse behaviour, and this particular type of shaming has caused an absolute avalanche. The follow-spamming that Twitter now hates enough to suspend the apps which facilitate it, is fuelled by the public display of follower counts. The archetypal follow-spammer ends up with a number – not an audience – and yet still continues to spam-follow. So the motivation for many is evidently the number itself. Take away that number, and logically, the spamming, or at least some of it, stops.
Ultimately, you can’t shame people by giving scores to their popularity, or lack of, and then expect them not to try to cheat their way out of that shame. Many Twitter spammers are just trying to cheat their way out of shame. Don’t want the cheating? Stop the shaming.
And the lengths to which some other users are going in order to artificially boost their popularity counts, border on self-abuse. There are people who manually Like and Retweet a horrendous number of other people’s tweets each day, because if they don’t, people will stop Liking and Retweeting them.
Having to make that investment in other people’s bids for validation, every day, just to avoid looking unpopular, is sad. And that’s not a pejorative sad. It’s genuinely a sad state of affairs. Remember, before you can even find decent stuff to Like and Retweet, you have to wade through mountains of crap. The idea of people spending a significant chunk of their lives doing that is tragic. And I know what it feels like, because in lower volume, I’ve done it. Would I have bothered if popularity scores were non-public? No. 100% not.
It could be said that whilst it’s pretty harsh for those who do feel enough status-pressure to spend their own leisure time wading through piles of other people’s worthless junk, Twitter gains from it, and would therefore never hide popularity scores. But there’s another dynamic we don’t see. The dynamic of people who are deterred from tweeting, because they don’t want to risk the embarrassment of nil point.
One of my Twitter accounts has a modest engaged audience, and the tweets now regularly get three digits of Likes. However, the audience is picky. They want a very specific type of content, and to get the engagement I know I have to deliver that content.
I tweet photos I’ve taken over a period of decades, and I have thousands and thousands of them. But I know that some photos will get a lot less engagement than others. Not because they’re not good photos, but because there’s less interest in the subject matter. And that’s less interest; not no interest. So whilst I’d love to tweet this pic, or that pic, I won’t, because I’m thinking:
“At this point in the account’s progress, do I really want a tweet on the profile that only got, say, 15 Likes?”
The answer is no.
So there’s a lot of material I know certain people would appreciate, but which I’m persuaded not to add because of the stigma of being seen to lose popularity. On the aforementioned account, I regularly contemplate deleting tweets that have ‘slow starts’, and on other accounts I’ve deleted tweets that have attracted no engagement at all. I’m not gonna lie, it’s embarrassing, and not just for me.
Deletion of tweets due to embarrassingly low engagement is common, and has extended right up to the holders of massive accounts with followings in the millions. They understand the damage it can do to their brands if their tweets are seen to be comparatively unpopular. Forcibly displaying popularity scores has negative motivations as well as positive ones.
In fairness, Twitter is not as bad as sites like YouTube, where negging is encouraged. I’d never put anything on YouTube, for that reason, and I closed an imgur account after one post because of their downvoting system. Only one downvote, but that was enough. If I’m posting a piece of my own work, which is inoffensive, and which I know will have value to some people, I don’t need or want the host platform inviting users to dislike it.
A lot of the people who care most about the value they give to others are hyper-sensitive to criticism, de-valuation and comparison. Silicon Valley sees everything as a competition, because it’s run by business-minded people, who are by nature competitive, and presumably can’t conceive that other people would not be. But creative people are often deterred by being compared and forced to compete. That’s exactly what indelible public popularity counts are. Forced comparison and competition. And people who care the most about delivering value are not the ones social platforms should be discouraging.
THE “DEBATING” ARENA
Then there’s the way popularity counts distort debate, and polarise everything into more extreme territory. The Like button’s role in this is something Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has himself acknowledged.
The dynamics are complex. Most social media debates are not really debates at all. They’re what I’d call egotistical blood sports. People targeting individuals or groups, not with the intent of resolving differences, but with the intent of making themselves look big, and humiliating the parties they target. Rather than debates, they’re a series of attacks and counter attacks. The attacks are normally founded on massive exaggerations (because the goal is purely to humiliate someone, and then gain applause from a targeted audience with a polarised belief), but some of them are just straighforward fabrications. Then the opposition wants revenge, so everything becomes more and more extreme as both sides get angrier and dirtier in their tactics.
These attacks are orchestrated, from the top, not by real passion, but by so-called “influencers”. People who calculatedly appeal to the self-interests of a targeted group in a sensationalist manner, as a means to make money for themselves. They may earn ad revenue, sell related products such as books and courses, nag for donations, or all three. Alternatively, they might use the free publicity and perceived status they gain from their cause-championing (or cause-hijacking), to sell something completely unrelated. But the bottom line is that they’re there to make money. Take away all prospect of them earning that money, and they disappear.
Charasteristically, “influencers” will never criticise their own side, however bad its behaviour, because if their own side (or even just part of it) turns against them, they lose money. This deepens the acrimony, because neither side has any significant internal control over abuse or hateful conduct.
The motivation behind these attacks, then, is multi-fold. At the top you have those who have long since given up caring about the ethics of the debate and will basically say anything they think will raise applause from the lowest common denominator of self-interest – thus preserving them enough publicity and perceived status to keep making money. Their behaviour is much like that of the “gutter press”, but they’re unregulated, so in some ways they’re even worse.
In the middle you have those who’ve got the nouse to see what the “influencers” are up to, want a piece of that for themselves, and therefore copy the distortive, sensationalist attacks – normally using exactly the same language. This is known as the echo chamber effect. Both “influencers” and “wannabe influencers” are desperate to increase their popularity counts, because that’s what gives them their perceived status and enables them to earn. People will naturally take more notice of someone whose tweets get thousands of Likes and whose Follower count runs into six digits, and they’re much more open to suggestion and manipulation from such individuals.
Then at the bottom you have those who are just desperate to avoid looking like losers. They know that if they reply to a thread saying: “Actually, I’m in the middle on this, and I think both sides of the argument are unfair and extreme”, they’ll get no digital applause, and no followers. They don’t want to look unpopular, so they take a side, and pander to what appears to be popular opinion. In other words, the wildly exaggerated soundbyte dreamed up by the “influencer” in order to bait publicity.
In all cases, the need to increase a set of publicly-displayed popularity counts is distorting opinion and behaviour. Some people would still be argumentative regardless of status pressure, of course, but not as many, and not in such a pernicious, polarised manner. Twitter’s echo chamber effect results in significant measure from a quest for popularity and status, in a world where people have no choice but to carry around a public status score on thei digital T-shirt. People are saying whatever they think they need to say, and doing whatever they think they need to do, in order to increase that score.
Where you have enormous differences in popularity which are literally being force-fed to the community, you’ll also find envy and bitterness. This prompts people with low popularity scores to attack or troll people with high popularity scores. Resentment and jealousy are primary causes of abuse on Twitter, as they are in the offline world. Removing the popularity counts would, in my view, quell some of the anger.
Copycat scamming occurs when users see a con artist gaining a huge following and high engagement with underhanded tactics (like promising ficticious giveaways), and they then carbon-copy those tactics. Without numerical popularity displays it would be much harder for people to identify successful scams, and thus it’s logical to assume there would be less copy-scamming.
There’s also a correlation between popularity counts and content theft. People desperately want a popularity badge, so some end up stealing material they can plainly see is successful. Without a numerical count to distinguish a spectacularly popular tweet from an unpopular tweet, it’s fair to suggest that fewer people would steal. At the very least, the targeting and identification system thieves use would be heavily disrupted.
WOULD TWITTER LOSE OUT BY REMOVING POPULARITY COUNTS?
I’m not going to pretend the move would be without adverse effect. But we should remember that Twitter offers popular people a lot more than just a numerical representation of their popularity. If the numbers are taken away, popular people still have reach, which they can use exactly as they use it now. I wouldn’t expect many famous people to leave Twitter because their fans could no longer see their popularity scores. There’s just too much value in the reach they have on the platform for them to give it up. Some might pull a face over it, but stop tweeting? I doubt it.
The potential damage occurs among people who only use the site as a popularity badge. I don’t know what proportion of the userbase that is; I do know there’s a major section of the “number-chasers” who run very low-quality accounts. But that doesn’t mean “number-chasers” don’t view and react to ads. If they do, they have a value to the platform regardless of their own output. So we have to acknowledge that taking popularity scores out of public view would be a risky move for Twitter.
WOULD TWITTER GAIN?
One of the commercial problems for Twitter is the amount of information it gives away to marketers. It currently gives away so much data that many businesses can either bypass paid promotion, or be put off it. And public follow/friend lists, popularity scores, etc, are part of that data.
Instead of paying to reach an audience, a business or marketer can go through a rival’s Twitter Followers list and approach targeted prospects directly. That’s basically the cause of follow-spamming. So publicly available data doesn’t just compromise Twitter’s ad revenue – it also encourages and facilitates spam.
Public popularity scores disadvantage Twitter in advertising too. The scores can show how well another business’s campaigns are working, or how badly they’re failing. Let’s be honest; if you see that a rival business placed an ad with Twitter, and their tweet got one RT and six Likes, you’re probably not going to bother paying for a campaign yourself, are you? Even though your own campaign may have fared massively better. And given that the number of Likes and RTs on promoted tweets are often not exactly a great advert for placing an advert, it may help Twitter to attract advertisers if that information were removed.
There are other ways in which potential or existing Twitter advertisers can be put off paying for ads by public popularity scores too.
A separate potential gain may come with an increase in site use by bygone celebrities and luminaries, who are currently under-represented on Twitter. Even those who have joined are often extremely quiet. There could be any of a range of reasons behind that, but it would be fair to regard status anxiety, due to forcible popularity rating, as a contender. Some bygone celebs may fear signing up or tweeting simply because their popularity scores would compare embarrassingly with those of present day celebs.
The idea that a widely forgotten celebrity of the past is somehow less valid as a voice on social media than someone who’s just dropped out of a reality show, is an uncomfortable one. Removing the popularity counts would put people on a par, and they’d survive or fall based on the value of their contribution, rather than on the value of their numerical totals.
WHY NOT JUST MAKE THE TALLIES OPTIONAL?
It would be possible for Twitter to give users the choice as to whether or not they display their popularity counts. That would certainly be a step forward from where we are at the moment. However, there may then be an assumption that everyone who chooses not to display their popularity counts is unpopular – although ‘hiders’ could cite privacy in response.
Additionally, the people who currently use their high counts as a means to exert control over others would inevitably still display them, and therefore most of the current debating or jealousy-related problems would remain.
One of the dangers of removing popularity counts would be the increased ease with which fakes and scammers could perpetrate their schemes. If the counts were made fully private, and could only be seen by the account holder, there would likely be all manner of Photoshopping or HTML-replacement antics performed by lowlife con artists to convince the public that they have two million followers, 15K Likes per tweet, or whatever. There’s an argument that the forcible hiding of popularity counts could be abused. We’ve come to rely on having a certain amount of data in order to determine who’s real and who’s fake. But the danger would of course be greatly reduced if the hiding of counts was made optional rather than enforced.
For me, the thing that weighs the argument in favour of at least providing all users with an option to hide their popularity counts, is that no one should be shamed based on the number of friends they have or the amount of applause they get, or feel pressure to labour for no tangible return other than the avoidance of a stigma. There’s enough privilege, disadvantage and status bias in the world without social media sites amplifying it. Stop reducing people and their contributions to numbers and ratings. Let people be seen as people.