rosenthal-2

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.