Nobody Famous

What it’s like to have the social network of a celebrity, without actually being famous

I’ve got more Twitter followers than you. I’ve got more Twitter followers than Ted Cruz, and I’m only a little bit behind Björk. If my followers were a state, we’d be creeping up on Wyoming in terms of population. Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I’m just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.

For celebrities, maintaining a large social network is just part of the job. For a regular person, things get pretty weird pretty quickly once a couple hundred thousand new friends show up.

Becoming fake-famous

Some background is necessary here. I didn’t actually earn my giant Twitter network. Sure, a lot of my followers are people who wanted to keep up with my updates (I write for outlets like The Message on Medium where this piece first appeared, and talk about things like technology and pop culture and politics, which always drive conversation on Twitter). But somewhere around half of my followers are only there because I was included on the “Suggested User List”, a now-retired feature that used to recommend people to follow when you joined the service.

Basically, somebody who worked at Twitter back in 2009 added me to that list, and all of a sudden my online network got upgraded to the kind of numbers that are usually only reserved for rock stars. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t end up with a ton of followers online because of any merit of my own; these things are always arbitrary. But in addition to getting onto that one weird list, I picked up a lot of my real followers simply by being early to Twitter. That’s a tactic that definitely helps you get more followers, and I’d strongly recommend joining Twitter in 2006 if you have the option. #helpfuladvice

The strangeness doesn’t end on Twitter. Once you get popular on one social network, it sort of bleeds over into other networks, since lots of apps let you import a list of friends from other services when you sign up. As a result, I have an absurdly large network on almost every popular service:

  • About half a million followers on Twitter
  • About 150,000 followers on Facebook
  • Thousands of followers on Instagram, Vine, and most of the other common social networks
  • I’ve got that insipid little blue checkmark on Twitter that indicates I’m verified. I even have a blue checkmark on Facebook! (Did you know Facebook has verified users? True story.)

So there must be some kind of awesome payoff for all this, right? Like I can just flash my Twitter profile at the door to the club and I get escorted back directly to Jay & Bey’s booth?

Ehh, not really.

Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams

A few times some misguided publicists have sent me advance copies of books, I guess in the hope that I might promote them on my Twitter account. (If I had the attention span to read a book, would I be spending all my time on Twitter? C’mon now.) If I ask for cooking tips or technical support, I tend to get pretty good answers from my network. And of course my friends like to mock me for being a pseudo-celebrity, though the novelty of that has worn off after a few years.

But I’ve never gotten a better seat at a restaurant because of it. The few times I’ve been added to the guest list for an event has typically been because I’ve written for some old-fashioned print magazines; Those invites became a lot more scarce after I stopped, even though my social network is a lot bigger today.

At a technological level, most of the tools and apps for using social networks completely fall apart once your network becomes huge. A lot of Twitter-related apps just crash as soon as I log in to them, and of course I have to turn off email notifications on any service I use in order to avoid being buried in a tsunami of alerts. The “notifications” area of Twitter typically sends me about 1,500 updates in a day, though there have been days when I get more than 5,000 notifications. I know there are people who have followed me who have wondered why I never followed them back, and it’s because at a certain point it can become impossible to identify particular individuals within the giant mass of incoming messages.

Web-Scale Weirdness

In all, aside from making people roll their eyes at me, the biggest impact of having this absurdly distended online network is that it makes my online life really weird. The weirdness is probably best demonstrated by a few of the recurring conversations that arise as a result:

  • “Yo, can you listen to my mixtape?” This is perhaps the most frequent side effect of having a lot of followers: People think there must be a reason people follow me, and assume I can do something for them as a result. In my case (and I don’t know if this is because I like hip hop, or is just random), I regularly get messages from people asking me to listen to their mixtapes or watch their YouTube videos. If this seems like an absurd request to you, then perhaps the next time you talk to Drake you should ask him how much my cosign on his mixtape meant to him.
  • “Hey, can you get me verified?” A variation on wanting attention or amplification for one’s work are the young folks (and they’re invariably under 25 years old) who very insistently plead for me to help them get a verified checkmark. Of course, I have no say in who gets verified, and I don’t even really understand the criteria by which the networks choose whom to bestow their blessing upon. But more importantly the checkmark doesn’t do anything! It’s the most clear case of star-bellied sneetches I’ve yet been able to find in adulthood, but this fact does nothing to temper the deep conviction of some that getting a blue checkmark on their Twitter or Facebook account would change their lives. Sometimes I want to email these people and ask how they think a few blue pixels on their Twitter account could have this kind of impact, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without revealing what a complete asshole I am.
  • “Please RT!” And then, of course, there are the incessant requests to promote or retweet or amplify people’s work. “I wrote a thing!” or “Your followers will love this!” or “Can you just share this real quick?” The politeness of these requests is typically in inverse relation to their merit. Sure, some of these are cool things I’m thrilled to get to share with a (theoretically) larger audience. But the overwhelming majority is just crap, or things that nobody would believe I was sincerely sharing. Worst of all: Nobody clicks. Well, not nobody, but out of about 550,000 followers on Twitter, it’s very common for fewer than 400 of them to click on a link I share. (That’s .07%!) And yet dudes (yes, it’s always dudes) feel like they’re doing me a favor by asking. I cofounded a company that helps people understand their behavior on social networks, and looking at some of my most popular content that I’ve shared shows about 1700 people clicking on a link, in total.
  • “Kill yourself!” If you have a lot of followers online, and especially if you have the temerity to do so while being a woman and/or a minority of some sort , you’ll often just face waves of harassment and abuse, regardless of how innocuous your statements are. I’d talk more about this, and what the social networks could do to fix things, but then the GamerGate hordes will just show up and start sending threats again, and ughhhhh who has the time? Anyway, this isn’t unique to having a big network, but having one may paint a larger target on one’s back.
  • “Help?” In an era where everybody’s got a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo to promote, it’s no surprise that people looking for crowdfunding success beg for links from the loudest voices online. Some of these are laughable (shout out to the 20-year-old guy who desperately wanted us to help him buy his first dirt bike), but there are a substantial number of people in real need. Almost every day, I hear a story of someone who needs help with their medical bills, or who went through an ugly divorce, or who lost their job, and they’re hoping that just getting in front of the right person online will change their luck. These are the conversations that I struggle with the most; I try to help as many as I can personally, but I generally don’t share their messages because so many turn out to be either misleading or sketchy and I don’t have the time to verify each one that I would share with my followers.

Be my soapbox

Some typical statistics on my Twitter activity, as reported by Twitter’s analytics features

What becomes clear after a few years of having a large social network is that people are desperate to be heard. Some of this is related to the fundamental question of conversation online, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But much of it ties back to people feeling powerless, of flailing toward any person who seems like they could provide opportunity or a way forward.

I sometimes respond to people with facts and figures, showing how the raw number of connections in one’s network doesn’t matter as much as who those connections are, and how engaged they are. But the truth is, our technological leaders have built these tools in a way that explicitly promotes the idea that one’s follower count is the score we keep, the metric that matters. After more than a decade of having that lesson amplified across the Internet, the billion or so people who rely on online social networks have taken the message to heart. It’s no wonder so many people want to believe that the only thing that’s kept them from all the promised benefits of the World Wide Web is that they haven’t had access to the kind of giant network that I was arbitrarily gifted.

In some ways, the people who ascribe almost-magical powers to a big social network are right. My network confers a wide range of privileges upon me. Having a few hundred people read something you want to promote is meaningful, and it’s a power that I have in my hands, at least some of the time. Getting that kind of attention by buying an ad on Twitter or Facebook probably costs a couple hundred dollars, so there’s a clear incentive to try spamming popular accounts in the off chance that it will eventually succeed.

But more broadly, people have been sold a bill of goods. They want to believe that celebrity of any form, even fake online celebrity, has some kind of value, despite the evidence to the contrary. Signifiers like a blue verification checkmark or a number of followers are given an enormously prominent display on our social profiles. Yet despite their visibility, their capricious nature is never explained, and so people tend to wrongly see these as indicators of the quality a person’s social media presence.

The thing that’s forgotten is, people don’t have huge social networks because they’re good at using the Internet. Beyonce got to having millions of Twitter followers before she ever even wrote her first tweet.

The fact is, online celebrity is just a simple reflection of the existing networks of privilege that confer benefits on people in every other realm of life.

In my particular case, being picked as a suggested user on Twitter changed the trajectory of my online life, but how is having a friend who was an early Twitter employee any different from the Old Boys’ Club? It ain’t.

My First Million

Once we realize that, a few unusual accidents aside, our social networks have the same foibles and biases as the rest of our culture, that leaves a basic question: Is there any value to any of this?

Yes. First, there is the privilege of getting to connect to an extraordinarily large group of people, and get a small window into their thoughts and desires. Hearing an unfiltered stream of people shouting their wishes into the vast expanses of the Internet has permanently made me more aware of the humanity of the strangers who tweet at me every day.

My outsized online footprint has also made me more keenly aware of the effects of the things I do share. If I’ve been given a preposterously large platform through no intrinsic merit of my own, how can I be worthy of it? Can I be mindful of whose voices I amplify? Can I challenge myself to raise issues that could benefit by greater visibility? Can I be more generous with the subtle gestures of social networks like favoriting or liking things, and convey a bit more kindness to those around me?

I’m still not good at it. I get self-conscious thinking that my words might be watched by some kid I went to high school with, or some random person in my neighborhood, or my father-in-law, or an ex-flame, or an unknown enemy. Even though I know most tweets that I send out just flow by are ignored by the vast majority of people on the network, every once in a while I wonder what would happen if half a million people did see what I wrote?

I once took the time to ask my network what they would do in my position. I got 120 real replies. The first set of replies to the question were jokes (mostly fairly gentle ones at my expense). Another small but significant set of replies were self-promotion, saying that they’d get the word out about the projects they’re working on, or just that they’d ask everyone for a dollar. A handful had darker responses about how they’d quit the network or steadfast replies about how they wouldn’t change a thing.

But by far, the most animated, most considered responses were the group that eventually became the single largest set of replies. Dozens of people each suggested that the one thing they would do with a celebrity-sized social network was directly address the issues and causes that they care most about.

Maybe we don’t have to wait until we’re famous to do that.