Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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My experiment with FastFollowers on Twitter

December 3, 2009Final Jeopardy

It was only a few months ago, at the height of British summer, that Dave Sumter, a systems engineer in the UK, began to think seriously about Twitter. He saw that newcomers to Twitter faced a fundamental problem: Everyone started off with an audience of zero. Building a crowd of followers could take months. So Sumter, in his spare time, set up a site to help people "develop a community of strangers."

The result was FastFollowers. It functions as a lonely hearts club for Twitter. Every time you choose to follow the Twitter stream of a fellow member, you earn a credit on the site. The system uses those credits to reward others for following you. Members, of course, can speed up the process by buying credits, and quickly build up a follower army of thousands. For $139.50, a user can buy 7,500 credits--and presumably an equal number of followers. "Now it's a fairly mature, self-sustaining site," says Sumter, whose service gets about 200 new members every day. Type "buy Twitter followers" in a search engine, and you'll find dozens of services selling the same fare.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to pay money for a crowd of Twitter followers. Consider Steve Lafavore. A couple of years ago, the 52-year-old former contractor and investor was "forced by the make changes in my very comfortable living style." For Lafavore and many other victims of the real estate crash, opportunities appeared to beckon from the computer. "That is why I got into social media marketing," he writes on his Web page. Now Lafavore pitches his know-how as a social media expert. He establishes his credentials, in part, by uploading how-do videos onto YouTube and gathering crowds onto his Facebook fan page. And in an industry where influence is often gauged by the size of a person's Twitter following, he uses services like FastFollowers to boost his microblogging entourage (8,932)....

That was how I started the first draft of my last BusinessWeek story. It's about social media consultants. Editors thought my lead was a long wind-up, and I'm sure it was. I ended up rewriting the story from top to bottom, and removing both FastFollowers and Steve Lefavore.

But I'm still fascinated by people like Lafavore. I tried getting in touch with him on Facebook, email, direct messages on Twitter, and calling up the unresponsive phone listed on his Web page. No luck. He follows me on Twitter, but doesn't pay attention to me. He seems more interested in building a following and advertising to them than in listening to them. But if he and other patrons of services like Fastfollowers amass thousands of followers who pay no attention to them, what are the followers worth?

Well, I'd say they're good for his brand. It's easier to sell himself as a social consultant if he has 10,000 followers on Twitter, even if they rarely click on his spammy posts.

I asked FastFollower's Dave Sumter about this. He has picked up a few thousand followers from his site. He agrees that they're worth less than an "organic" following of people. But it's a way to get started, he says. And gradually, Fastfollower subscribers can unfollow spammers and focus on interesting Twitterers.

So I started a Fastfollower account, summersorrow55. I quickly followed more than 200 people, and a slightly smaller number followed me. I've tried to communicate with them, and have never gotten back a human response. It's all spam. It's part of the underbelly of social media. I dropped the experiment after a week or two. I might as well have been communicating with machines. Maybe I was.

For the personal look at social media, here's Steve Lafavore's advice:


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