If Twitter was a megaphone, you’d measure its volume through follower counts. The difference between an account with 45 followers and an account with 45,000 is like the difference between a grade school music class and a concert at Madison Square Garden.
As a legacy element of Old Twitter, follower count has long been the benchmark of user popularity and reach. But with the platform struggling to control waves of troll attacks, abuse, and fake accounts, one has to wonder if the metric should stick around.
Twitter co-founder and current CEO Jack Dorsey has stopped short of chucking it, though he’s clearly doing some soul-searching. Late last year, he told an audience in New Delhi that developers didn’t give much thought to how prominent the metric was in the social network’s original interface.
“We did not really think much about it and moved on to the next problem to solve,” Dorsey reportedly said. “… we put all the emphasis, not intending to, on that number of, how many people follow me. So, if that number is big and bold, what do people want to do with it? They want to make it go up.”
If Twitter is about letting “strangers” know what you’re doing, then it’s a broadcast platform. Broadcasting doesn’t work without an audience.
Early Twitter prominently featured a site member’s follower number near the top of the right-hand column. Above it, though, was a metric Twitter no longer publicly tracks: “Friends,” or the number of your followers that you followed back. It aligned neatly with one of Twitter’s earliest taglines (from September 2006), which read, “Twitter is for staying in touch and keeping up with friends, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.” Two months later, the text was amended and Twitter was now: “A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?”
That update opened the door to “strangers,” which might explain more about today’s ongoing follower fixation than anyone realizes. After all, if Twitter is about letting “strangers” know what you’re doing, then it’s a broadcast platform. Broadcasting doesn’t work without an audience, and, to build one and be heard, a broadcaster needs followers.
Dorsey is not alone in his insistence that it was a mistake to prioritize followers in the first place. Last September, Kanye West made his own argument about it.
“We should be able to participate in social media without having to show how many followers or likes we have,” he tweeted. “Just like how we can turn off the comments we should be able to turn off the display of followers. This has an intense negative impact on our self worth.”
Giving Twitter users the ability to hide follower counts (and likes) isn’t a terrible idea, but I think Twitter and Dorsey are leaning in the direction of demoting or removing follower counts altogether.
I was recently invited by Twitter to try out the company’s new web interface. With its more streamlined look, it’s a close cousin to the Twitter mobile app. But I immediately noticed what was missing. New Twitter, as I took to calling it, had pushed follower counts off my home page; I could only see them by clicking on my profile.
It isn’t a huge change, but it’s clearly a signal that Dorsey’s quest to demote personal performance metrics on the platform is getting serious. The design update also forced me to confront the possibility that Twitter follower counts might soon disappear from the platform altogether.
I asked Twitter and Dorsey about this change and what it might mean for the future of the product. Dorsey didn’t respond, and Twitter spokespeople wouldn’t speak directly to some of my questions about the potential removal of follower counts. They did point me to some changes the service made to profiles on its iOS version late last year, reducing the font size of most everything, including followers and following counts, but leaving names and bios larger. The effort clearly shifts the focus away from the follower metric.
To be fair, Twitter has been open about “rethinking everything” to encourage healthier conversation on the platform. Still, I was frustrated by Dorsey’s apparent efforts to rewrite Twitter history, saying, in essence, that the company never wanted one’s follower count to matter. I started looking for insights about why from Old Twitter.
As I dug through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I found myself fascinated by the less stylized graphics, tweets from early adopters — like Barack Obama, who had just 600 followers in 2007 — and the activity of other less-notable early adopters who found some engagement in the young social platform but were never swept up in the follower obsession.
Stephen Francis Kenny, a former engineer and current stay-at-home dad who signed up for Twitter in 2006, told me via direct message that he “was a little confused about follower mechanics at first, and not being able to direct message at will.” Other than that, he never gave his follower count much thought.
He did add that the follower concept “seems to have been important to [Twitter’s] growth.”
As more and more people crested a million or more followers, the concept of influencers took hold. Now the relationship between the tweeter and their audience was flipped on its head. Followers weren’t simply a passive audience: They were tracking Twitter accounts for nuggets of insight, wisdom, opinion, and guidance. Some were obsessively pursuing follow-backs from their favorite celebs. People with massive Twitter followings became inadvertent thought leaders.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed and met a number of these so-called Twitter celebs. I wondered how they would feel if the clearest measure of their social platform popularity and influence disappeared.
For most, the topic was radioactive. No one, least of all celebrities, wants to be caught saying they care about the number of followers they have. Still, I did manage to get a couple of internet celebrities to open up about the topic.
Actor and author William Shatner, who’s been on Twitter since 2008, told me he really doesn’t care about his count — he currently has 2.5M followers — but is more concerned about the quality of followers.
“How do you tell a troll account that created a secondary or third account and has no followers? The date of account creation? Or [how do you identify] an imposter account?” he told me via DM. Whatever Twitter does, he added, “the decision needs to be well thought out and not be a stopgap because Twitter wants to be politically correct to those who don’t have a large number of followers.”
I’ve long believed that Twitter follower counts are a reasonable measure of influence, but I’m not oblivious to how those counts have been gamed and distorted over the years.
Back in 2015, a massive influx of porn-filled spam bot accounts inflated the follower counts of many users. At one point, a third-party service identified up to 23 percent of my followers as fake accounts. Twitter has cracked down on these bots and zombie accounts — my growth has downshifted from nearly 10,000 new followers a year to, if I’m lucky, a couple hundred per month.
Justine Ezarik, who goes by iJustine on Twitter and on her popular YouTube channel, told me via DM that displaying follower counts looks “great for brands and public perception.” However, people may be overestimating the power of those follower counts.
Ezarik, who joined Twitter in 2006, rightly pointed out that it’s now “algorithms telling us what we want to see, watch, and hear. Much like YouTube subscriber counts don’t equate to view counts. It’s still a great metric, but looking at engagement to content is more important overall.”
Whatever the case, I still don’t agree with removing follower counts altogether. Conversations are what make Twitter such an engaging platform. But the existence of follower counts reminds us that it is and has always been more than just a heightened version of group chat.
Twitter is an information platform for media, brands, politicians, organizations, celebrities, and regular people, all of whom want to know who’s listening. They also want to know how far their tweet traveled. Follower counts help tell that story. Without that information, it’s almost impossible to know why your 280 characters went viral.
No one comes to Twitter to share private thoughts. The platform is the equivalent of climbing to a mountaintop and shouting. If someone hears you, they might also shout it from their mountain top, and the reality of this Twitter terrain is that some mountains are higher than others, and some shouts travel further.
This, to my mind, is what’s still best about Twitter. I would hate to see the company dynamite the peaks to achieve some kind of false equivalency. On Twitter, not every voice is equal — and I think that’s okay.