Social media has in many ways become a digital religion, perhaps even a cult, at least in terms of how people value the power of likes and followers. This is absolutely true on Twitter, where the number of followers someone has is seemingly tied to their credibility – rather than what the actual message says.
As a result those who may make a good point could be easily and readily dismissed simply because of their lack of followers. On the flip side, those who “work it” and try to get followers – akin to digital apostles – can be declared more credible because so many people follow them.
But is this credible?
“A large number of followers may suggest credibility through a persuasive strategy called ‘social proof,” explained Dr. Leilani Carver, director of Graduate Strategic Communication and Leadership at Maryville University. “Social proof, popularized by professor of influence Dr. Cialdini, is the idea that if someone is unsure about what they should do – e.g., should I buy this widget? – they will look to others to see what they do – e.g., how many people bought the widget and what review was it given?. Then, if many people complete an action, or believe something, they are likely to do the same.”
This can translate into a large following on social media, as some users are likely to make the assumption that if someone has a large following they are worthy of being followed.
“One problem with granting this credibility based upon numbers is that there are ways to cheat the system and inflate your numbers – e.g., buying followers – so follower engagement is actually a much better read of influence regarding marketing strategy. However, the greater issue may be that the person with the large following is simply not a credible source,” added Carver.
In other words, just because you have influence does not make you an expert. And just because you have followers may not make you credible on a subject.
“If there is a relationship between credibility and the number of followers a person has on social media, it is probably an inverse relationship. In other words, the more followers somebody has, the less credible they probably are,” added technology industry analyst Josh Crandall of Netpop Research.
“There are some who have a lot of integrity for facts and science and amass a sizable following online such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (~14.2M Twitter) and Richard Dawkins (~2.9M), but the vast majority of popular influencers are building their followers through the cult of celebrity – Kylie Jenner (~39.2M) or the power of bombastic rhetoric – Joe Rogan (~7.6M),” Crandall noted. “In fact, more than half of the 50 most popular twitter accounts are those of celebrities, musicians or sports figures. I’m not sure what credibility these people have other than presenting their own opinions. And based on what we have seen in the recent past – think Gina Carano – those opinions can be highly subjective and suspect at times.”
Carver also noted Kylie Jenner’s half sister Khloe Karadashian has some 192 million followers on Instagram.
“Khloe often promotes waist trainers on Instagram,” said Carver. “Yet, a credible physician and wellness expert, Dr. Alok Patel, reports that waist trainers have no scientific backing, are not effective and may actually be harmful. Dr. Patel, while being a very vocal advocate of health has only 22,400 followers on Instagram, compared to Khole’s 192 million. Dr. Patel is a credible source regarding waist trainers and health and yet has drastically fewer followers. Dr. Patel does use the persuasive strategy of authority (e.g., credibility through a title and/or degree). However, the reality is that falsehoods spread faster and more broadly than the truth.”
Emphasis On Numbers Not Content
As noted, the issue is that too much emphasis on the credibility and influence is based solely on the followers. Thus the beautiful and popular immediately have an advantage.
However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise due to the increased use of social media, especially by the youth.
“Today, the first thing an individual checks before doing business with you is your social footprint,” warned technology entrepreneur Lon Sakfo, author of The Social Media Bible. “Several years ago, before the maturity of the social platform, it was called your ‘digital footprint.'”
Safko noted that in the past if someone searched for him, Safko’s Google digital footprint had around 185,000 indexed pages that mentioned him for his various works.
“Now that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other platforms become fully established my digital footprint is now weighed heavily on these three,” he added.
Thus, while Safko is a published author of multiple books, his credibility index could be weighed against those who simply have lots of Facebook friends, Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections.
Reliance on Metrics
None of this would be a serious problem, except so much emphasis is placed on followers, likes, shares, etc. This can impact the roles actors are given, impact whether stories written by journalists are actually taken seriously and most ominously our political future.
The world increasingly moves based on followers and likes, and the impact it could have
“Having impact means having power to affect meaningful and enduring change,” explained James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
“Charles Dickens didn’t have an Instagram account, but he almost single-handedly changed Britain’s labor laws,” said Bailey. “Donna Tartt, perhaps America’s greatest living author, has a Twitter account on which she has never posted. Congressman Dr. Michael Burgess from Texas – a fair-minded conservative who has had a substantial impact on US health care policy – has exactly 784 Twitter followers.”
Yet, for Safko, he said that trying to get a book published today is challenging, because the publishers are also caught up in followers and likes. “It must be large enough where they can assume, that with that size following you can sell 10,000 copies of your book. If you don’t have the following, then you are not considered.”
While it is true that someone with a huge number of followers could potentially have better chances of his/her/their book become a best seller, too often likes don’t translate into sales. That in itself is another problem.
But really, it all comes back on the fact that we’ve become fixated on, and even obsessive about social media metrics that should be seen as meaningless compared to other measures of one’s efforts.
“Can a salesperson’s success be measured by sales,” pondered Bailey. “Sure. Can an attorney’s productivity be measured by billable hours? Certainly. Can a professor’s contribution be measured by the number of books published? Maybe. But can someone’s impact be measured by social media followers? No. Nope. Never.”