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If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The infamous question is a philosophical thought experiment meant to arouse curiosity over the nature of observation and what we understand to be reality. It’s also used by undergrads studying philosophy to sound more musing than they truly are (as well as a cross-section of other weirdoes who often follow up the original question by asking if you’d like to feel their heart with a body part other than your hand).

A more modern equivalent to such an inquiry might be:

If a person tweets to no followers, does he or she actually have an opinion on sports?

Of course, an ontological question of such magnitude for the sports fan requires further examination.

Why does this hypothetical he or she not have any followers? Did the person constantly retweet the spelling mistakes of people they’re not even following, instigating a mass exodus of followers? Are they the only account free from “bots” following them? Do he or she not receive mentions advising them of methods for the inflation of their sexual organs? Why wouldn’t this person just buy some fake followers?

The idea of fake followers came to the social media forefront this past summer amid accusations that Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney purchased additional Twitter disciples after an uncharacteristically large increase of newly made accounts began following the former Governor of Massachusetts over the time span of a single weekend. Buying this form of social media capital is a shady bit of business because the followers themselves don’t generate any direct value for the user. Its sole purpose is to mislead others into accepting a false sense of authority based on popularity.

While the idea of fake followers suggests insidious back room dealings with a member of the social media black market, the truth is that every public Twitter account ends up getting followed by accounts that aren’t run by individuals interested in your thoughts on Beyonce’s thighs during the Super Bowl half-time show. Thanks to the coding skills of spamsters, the more you tweet and the more people following you, the more likely it is that a growing percentage of fake followers have attached themselves to you.

As of writing this, I am followed by a modest 6,567 accounts on Twitter, and I average approximately 15 tweets per day. I don’t have any delusions about my number of followers. The majority of people following me through social media do so because of my job in which I write about sports. I have never gone out of my way to solicit fake accounts through purchase or promotion, but according to Status People, a website that provides an online method for tracking Twitter statistics, 12% of my followers are judged to be fake.

These findings led me to wonder about the elite of my profession, members of the sports media whose opinions are the most accepted, whose accounts are the most followed, and whose employers are among the most powerful in the business. I proceeded to compile a not entirely objective list consisting of fifty writers, radio broadcasters and television presenters. The criteria for membership in this who’s who of sports media was mainly built around popularity on Twitter. However, I attempted to ensure that the list properly represented a wide array of sports coverage and outlet affiliation, as well as including greater gender variation than strictly looking at follower accounts  would’ve allowed. I took the names that I selected and put each one through the Status People application.

These are the results:


Observations

It’s important to remember that a high count of fake followers doesn’t necessarily mean that they were purchased by the user, and this is in no way meant to accuse anyone of such a misleading practice. Rather, collecting this data is meant to exhibit that a large number of followers on social media doesn’t necessarily translate into a large audience.

It should also be noted that the methods for extracting the data won’t always lead to the most accurate results. Status People takes a sample of followers and then assesses their behavior on Twitter based on predetermined criteria for a spam account. The larger the following, the larger the sample, but it’s not proportional, and those tested with a lot of followers will have their samples skewed more toward recent additions.

The average percentage of fake followers on the list among the sports media elite is 26%, with a 25% median.

The average percentage of inactive followers on the list among the sports media elite is 36%, with a 37% median.

The average percentage of real and active followers on the list among the sports media elite is 38%, with a 37% median.

While it’s refreshing to learn that the average real and active amount of followers is greater than either fake or inactive, the average big-time sports journalist is still tweeting comments, thoughts and links to less than 40% of the followers that they supposedly have. Considering the unlikelihood of that 38% all keeping up to date on their Twitter application every time a journalist tweets, and the reach of even the most followed is greatly diminished from the impression that their total follower count might otherwise warrant.

I think this is best seen by comparing FOX Soccer’s Grant Wahl to independent soccer writer Ives Galarcep. Wahl is seen to have 295,000 followers on Twitter, which compares rather favorably to Galarcep’s 82,000. However, given the high number of fake accounts following Wahl’s feed, the two writers are reaching a similar number of engaged people with their respective tweets.

Surprisingly, the fictional characters portrayed on ESPN’s sports media satirical comedy First Take – Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless – have the largest percentage of true followers on the entire list.

The Keepin’ It Real award agoes to Bayless, who had the highest percentage of real and active followers (presumably inversely proportional to the legitimacy of his arguments). Runners up include his partner Smith and Zach Lowe of ESPN’s Grantland.

The Faker McPhony award goes to Grant Wahl of FOX Sports and Sports Illustrated, who has the highest percentage of fake followers. Runners up include Emma Carmichael of Deadspin and Mike Wilbon of ESPN.

The Dying Audience award goes to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, who has the highest percentage of inactive followers. Runners up include Judy Battista of the New York Times and Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports.

The journalists representing baseball had the lowest percentage of real and active followers, while generalists had the highest. Of the major media outlets represented, ESPN, not including Grantland’s writers, had the highest percentage of real and active followers. FOX Sports, with their relatively small sample skewed by Grant Wahl’s lackluster numbers, had the highest percentage of fake followers.

Aside: Anecdotally speaking, it seems as though the older the journalist, the more likely he or she is to include his or her affiliation in their Twitter handle.

Adam Schefter is enormous. Yes, he has a higher than average percentage of fake accounts following him, but it’s understandable given his enormous following. His true following of approximately 864,000 is more than 200,000 followers higher than the next closest sports journalist.

Comments (25)

  1. Minus the dig at Philosophy students, this is great. I had an inkling that this was the case. I’d be curious to see the numbers or percentage breakdown of fake followers on the whole as your total numbers increase.

  2. I don’t agree with the use of inactive followers here. I have 0 tweets and less than 20 followers, am I an inactive user even though I check Twitter at work every 10 minutes? I suspect a large number of the inactive users are people like me that use Twitter as an information gathering tool without contributing themselves.

    • I concur. I check Twitter frequently and follow many of the people listed here. Yet I have 0 tweets and 0 (nonspam) followers, so this system would count me as spam.
      Not that I necessarily blame them. I would guess that users like me are the minority and most of the 0/0 accounts probably are spam. But I don’t actually know how one would test this.

    • If you have zero tweets, you’re simply not as valuable to a content provider as someone who is willing to share content. These metrics are primarily for their use. While you may be interacting through clicking yourself, it pales in comparison to an active reader who is much more likely to share.

      • But why aren’t those non-tweeting twitter users valuable? I don’t agree with that. Twitter followers who use twitter for information are just like people who read the newspaper: they absolutely count. I’m glad I read the comments, because this argument skews the statistics listed in the main article.

      • If this is what we’re after, why do we care about follower numbers at all? Let’s look at retweets, number of times a tweet has been favourited or mentioned, and the ultimate holy grail, number of click-throughs from a tweeted link.

        At any rate, your post seems to assume that none of the “inactive” users are actually being exposed to any given tweet made by one of the listed writers – something that is nowhere close to accurate. That’s what I was quibbling with.

      • Maybe a “fake” account is less valuable to advertisers, but in your article you were crediting these accounts to bots that one just “picks up” over time or can even purchase. In point of fact, this service can’t distinguish bot accounts from lurker accounts.

  3. poor Grant Wahl

  4. Interesting. After checking Status People, seems like I’m a spam follower because I only use Twitter to follow and never to post. So I have no tweets and few-to-no followers. Dunno how many more of this type of user there might be.

    • This was exactly my thought by reading their methodology. People who use twitter primarily like a Google Reader account sound like they’ll turn up as a “fake” user, even though they’re more like a lurker.

      I also don’t see why there are so many fake accounts out there. To what purpose would someone write a script for a twitter account that just randomly adds people? Is it designed to cover fake accounts created to boost someone else?

  5. I guess I always figured this, but it’s interesting seeing the actual numbers. The percentage of real/active followers is probably even lower than I thought.

    By comparison, I don’t write for any blog or website, and I’m at 80% “Good” (4% Fake).

  6. Interesting stuff. I’m curious as to how many real follower Dustin has.

  7. I think the “Fake” Column should be redefined; Because there are real people with real accounts who don’t tweet, but follow accounts, and then there are real fake accounts who follow fake people like me, @FrankDAngelo23.

  8. Some other interesting ones of note:
    Barack Obama 44/29/27
    Drew 7/23/70
    Andrew 12/32/56
    The Pope 20/28/52
    Sean Hannity 35/35/30
    …And then it told me I had to wait 15 minutes to get more.

  9. Since when was Wahl a writer for FOX? Does nobody do any fact checking here?

  10. First Take is satirical? Stephen A and Skip are fictional characters?

  11. What about Bill Simmons? I’d venture that he’s number one for sports columnists…

  12. It would be interesting to see how this data stacks up against Twitter users in other professions/fields.

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