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).