Are the goods really from a can?

Spamfitti: Mindless Following and Promiscuous Friending

Email is being replaced by Twitter and Facebook. Or, maybe it’s not. But what do you call it when a Twitterer follows 3,000 people, has 2,800 followers—and has yet to write a single tweet? Are they ‘friends’? I suggest it has something in common with both spam and graffiti, and requires a new word–‘spamfitti.”

This is not another stupid rant about the word ‘friend.’ That ship has sailed. This rant is about the need to keep what killed email from choking social networks.

The Spam Factor of Following

Consider: email spam is so hard to eradicate because the economics of one more marginal spam address are essentially zero—so almost any non-zero response rate turns it profitable.

Twitterers and LinkedIn users (I can’t speak for Facebook) are increasingly acting like spammers. They are indiscriminately following others, since the reciprocity instinct is so high in human beings that the follow will quite often be returned.

If what you want is followers, then the human-economics of adding more followers by following are very compelling—far more even than the economics of spam. I follow you, you follow me—it no longer has anything to do with the message or the content; it is simply about the badge, the Klout, the rankings. This is the second derivative of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message.

The Graffiti Factor of Following

Why do social spammers follow? To be followed. Why do they want to be followed? Perhaps for a few it’s to provide a base for future monetization. But for a vast majority, I think, it’s reflexive—the follow itself is the new currency. It needs no justification beyond its own existence.

This is graffiti. The reward of spray-painting your name (or carving it in rocks 150 years ago in Wyoming) is largely the knowledge that others will see it. Pure adolescent or childish ego, in other words. (My grandmother taught me: “Fools’ names, like fools’ faces, often appear in public places.”)

The Power of Spamfitti

Spamfitti combines the ease of graffiti (the whole idea behind social networks is that they’re public), with the economics of spam—only worse. Because the driving motivator is ego, not money—and the former trumps even the latter in terms of power. And because it relies on another human frailty—the built-in instinct to reciprocate a ‘favor.’

The Hare Krishna cult used to exploit this frailty; they’d offer you a flower with a smile, and even though you knew you were being hussled, if you took the flower, you felt like you had to give them a dollar.

Why is this a big deal? Because it drives ‘networks’ ever closer to the original non-network, email. Each of us individually maximizing our good at the margin ends up collectively ruining our good.

This is a well-known problem in human economics, called the Tragedy of the Commons. And like everything else, cyberspace just puts human issues on steroids.

The Chris Brogan Exception

I’m aware Chris liberally follows those who follow him and that gives me pause because I think Chris is a genuinely fine human being, and he’s smart to boot. So here’s my @chrisbrogan exception clause: he does it so he can liberally use search tools and HootSuite analytics on a large followership and still not have to read tweets in Mandarin or Greek.

So: unless you use HootSuite analytics (and can’t read Mandarin), this exception does not apply to you.

The Rest Of Us

How do we get out of this conundrum of human frailty?

Stop following every fool who gives you the digital equivalent of a flower and a smile. And don’t be so promiscuous with your own follows, either.

(Turns out maybe this was a bit of a rant about ‘friends’ after all).

10 replies
  1. Eric Pratum
    Eric Pratum says:

    While I agree with your overall point, you are overlooking filtering. Facebook and Twitter have pretty advanced filtering, so you can follow or friend many thousands of people and only ever see content from a chosen few. Many, many twitterers are open about the fact that they filter down to only the people they want to pay attention to. To me, this seems like neither spam nor graffiti.

    Additionally, given that outside of Linkedin Q&A, Linkedin is essentially not a social medium. Accepting connections from thousands of people on Linkedin only improves one’s chances of being found in search, promoting oneself, getting job opportunities, and so on.

    Reply
  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Eric,

    Thanks for the comments on filtering, and for the visibility issue on LinkedIn that makes it different.

    Help me understand, though: in Twitter, what’s the logic of following someone and then filtering them out so you never have to read what they tweet? That still feels like spamfitti to me, am I missing something there?

    Reply
  3. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:

    Wait a minute. Isn’t “Spamfitti” what clever Italians make when all that is left in the cupboard is Spam?!

    Charlie, I think you hit the social nail on the head. Much of what drives the micro-blogging engine is the petrol commonly known as self-orientation. I tried to swim those Twitter/HootSuite waters for several months. I “subscribed” to several of the hip, supposed cutting-edge tweety-birds and was absolutely bored stiff.

    They would tweet about their hot cars, their hot investments, their own events, their kids and every 15 minutes–get a life. One guy had semi-informative business-based tweets on weekdays, then went into every hour, on the hour, religious revival mode on the weekends. Is there a “weekend” filter? I don’t know.

    Anyway, here’s my prediction: Twitter will go the path of Second Life and no one will miss it or the inflated egos that fuel it today.

    Reply
  4. Eric Pratum
    Eric Pratum says:

    Hey, Charlie. Thanks for the email and quick response here. I appreciate it.

    All of these, as you said above, really play off of the human need to reciprocate.

    You could go with a Chris Brogan justification and say that you support following many people because the more people you follow, the more people will follow you back and the larger group you will have to experiment on. You could go with the Guy Kawasaki justification which is the same until that last part. He’s on Twitter to promote his business…the more potential people that see that the better.

    You could also justify it simply for the fact that big numbers tend to impress people that are out of their element. If I know nothing about Twitter and see that you have 200 followers while someone else has 2,000, there must be something about you. I won’t know what it is, but many people will assume that it’s simply because you’re more popular and not because your strategy is to follow as many people as possible as long as they follow you back.

    Regardless of the justification, many people don’t follow others because they have a legitimate interest in what the other shares, but rather to get something, and filtering makes it easier to get the best of both of these…if there is such a mix.

    Reply
  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    “But what do you call it when a Twitterer follows 3,000 people, has 2,800 followers—and has yet to write a single tweet?”

    Needy

    The question underneath the question is, “Why?” “Really, really why?” Guess that’s two questions. Both worth exploring from a psycho-emotional perspective.

    Reply
  6. @aaronmandelbaum
    @aaronmandelbaum says:

    I think it is very unfortunate to still hear the sentiment from the writer above who thinks that Twitter is a fad. Granted you can find any self fulfilling agenda under the sun on Twitter, but if that is all you are getting from it then you are doing it wrong. First, Twitter is the new RSS Feed. I follow the bloggers I like, I segment them onto lists, wait for them to tweet their blog posts and voi la! Real time RSS. You can receive all the education you need by leveraging Twitter and lists. To the next point about so many casual follows, people who have a poor follow to follower ratio are penalized by Klout as part of their scoring algorithm. Finally, by following and returning follows you are ultimately extending the reach of your message. But you have to put in the work to make others want to extend your message. As far as who to follow? Usually I stick with people that have an even follow/follower ratio. I look at the number of times they have tweeted and whether they have a picture of themselves or not.

    Reply
  7. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Aaron,

    I’m totally with you about twitter being the new RSS feed, and for precisely the same reasons you do. The trick is to avoid the ones that drive LEO wild (me too), and pick the ones you want to follow, putting them on lists. What you do is what I do too, and I love it.

    I too tend to follow those with even follow/follower ratios, good numbers of tweets, etc.–same as you. And I agree, you’ve got to put in some good work to get the benefits.

    I wonder, though, about the Klout score. What’s the point? And let me confess–I follow my Klout score too. And my TweetLevel rating. So I’m hardly immune. But what’s it all about? Isn’t it just another version of wanting to reach more people, and therefore trying to over-communicate? I’m not sure.

    Reply
  8. @aaronmandelbaum
    @aaronmandelbaum says:

    Charles I guess the point is that it’s all that we have so take it for face value. Truth be told clout, influence, that is all in the eyes of the beholder. But the metric that Klout provides is unique in a way that it makes this level playing field of social media, even more level. Klout scores are required for many social media job positions looking to be filled. I use it as a barometer for where my progress has taken me. It allows me minimal metrics, but effective none the less , so that I can guide my Twitter strategy. Klout sees me as a sydicator, for me I look at that and say that I need to engage more. Klout also gives me insight to you Charles. My score is a 39 I am pushing hard, you sir are a 54…You can bet your last dollar that I will be paying attention to what it is that you do so I can get better. I’d love it if you could follow me back on Twitter so I can share some DM’s offline…@aaronmandelbaum

    Reply

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