Twitter Trains: Don’t Get on Board

Assuming you use Twitter at all, unless you’re a celebrity or otherwise have a career where Twitter plays a significant role, you probably don’t care much about how many followers you have. Your main concern is who you are following, not who’s following you. True, having a substantial group of followers can help any one (such as when you’re seeking an answer to a question). Still, it is typically not a primary concern for most people.

For certain Twitterers, however, the number of followers can matter very much. Why? Because a large number of followers translates into “influence.” When you have influence, it means your tweets can have a significant effect. The effect can be impressively trivial (such as tweeting people to gather for an impromptu party and having 1000 people show up) to impressively meaningful (such as tweeting that some new iPhone app is the best ever, and suddenly 1000 people purchase it).

If you are a technology writer, as one example with which I am very familiar, such influence can positively affect your career. Getting an accurate listing of followers is similar to knowing the number of pages views that a particular blog entry gets. It’s a measure of popularity and influence.

One way to look at Twitter followers is as an absolute number. By this measure, one thousand followers is one thousand followers. It doesn’t matter how many more or less you have than someone else. It only matters if you have enough to attain some defined goal. This tends to be the way I look at my own numbers. If my follower number goes up, that’s great. But I don’t worry about it much or do much to promote it. I already have a sufficient amount, as far as I am concerned.

The other way to view Twitter followers is as a relative number. By this measure, the critical thing is how many more (or less) followers you have than someone else. Here, your ranking matters as much as, if not more than, your absolute number.

But here’s the critical point: For such relative comparisons to be useful, there should be a basic legitimacy in how followers are acquired. That is, the meaning of 1000 followers should be about the same no matter who you are looking at. Unfortunately, such is not the case.

One big reason this is not the case is because of Web sites that function as “Twitter trains.” Such sites offer a variation of “you-scratch-my-back,-I’ll scratch-yours.” You agree to follow total strangers and, in exchange, these (or equally unknown) strangers agree to follow you. If it works, you wind up with a large number of followers (who could care less about you) for the price of following more people than you could ever hope to track. For example, I recently stumbled over a new Twitter account for an “ordinary” person; it listed 396 followers and was following 1112 people. Guess how many updates this person had posted? If you guessed 1, you win. This person had almost definitely gotten on board a Twitter train (or something similar).

I have seen Twitter trains compared to pyramid schemes. But I don’t think that’s quite right. In a true pyramid scheme, only those who joined at the beginning stand a decent chance of benefitting. Here, it’s possible that everyone who joins can “benefit.”

Regardless, Twitter trains makes little or no sense to me. First, it’s a form of cheating, an artificial boost, like taking steroids to up your batting average. Second, it’s relatively easy to detect what’s going on, so you don’t wind up fooling anyone anyway. All you wind up doing is distorting, and thereby decreasing, the value of relative number of followers as a meaningful statistic. If I tried, I suppose I could come up with a legitimate reason for using a Twitter train, but I doubt it would be the reason that most people do it.

In the world of Twitter, such schemes are still a minor blip on the landscape. However, as Twitter grows in popularity, and the number of followers takes on greater significance, I’m sure that the instances of such cheating will increase. The day will likely come when figuring out a person’s “real” number of followers is yet another problem to solve, just like trying to filter out spam from the “real” email in your Inbox. Speaking of spam, Twitter spam has also arrived on the scene and is yet another growing hassle.

Sigh. Let the games begin.