The Social Status Race: Battle for the Followers.

On: October 8, 2009
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About Harro Heijboer
In 2008 I graduated from Rotterdam University of Applied Science, after a course in Communication and Multimedia Design. In 2009 I finished the pre-master Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam and currently I'm a master student Media and Culture with special interest in Copyright, Net Neutrality and Software Studies. Beside my very active schedule as a student I'm working as an independent freelance new media producer, specialized in technical web applications, and 2 days a week I'm appointed as Community Manager for a medium sized hardware producer in Rotterdam. In my spare time I'm politically active for the Socialist Party in The Netherlands on all kind of subjects and on the Internet as independent voice against Copyright and pro Net Neutrality.


Have you ever had that moment were you where looking at someone else’s social network site profile and wondered about the amount of friends this person had? A person with more than 10.000 friends for example? And that you thought; “he can never ever have that many friends in real life, this must be somebody with no life at all and adds everyone he can add just to look important”? Well, I had these thoughts! Surfing across my favorite social network site, amazed by the amount of friends some people have. I figured out that I was not alone, the newspapers and in popular language, people were talking about this ridiculous amount of friends.

I wondered what this would actuality do with your social status. These people patently added people to look like they had a lot of friends and to show-off how important they must be. But it seemed to me that they were accomplishing the direct opposite of their intensions. By having to many friends they lost their credibility. Their offline social status seemed to be suffering under the pressure of their online social status. As Boyd already points out in here article ‘Friendship‘ (2008); most people seem to use social network sites as a way to keep track of their offline friends. Which would imply that their social status online and offline have a direct link as well. Last year I wrote a paper on ‘The status of our social status’ (Heijboer, 2009: in Dutch only [PDF]) in which I finally conclude that our offline social status and our online social status seems to be intertwined so much together that not having a social network site profile will affect your offline social status too. Which means for my generation and the next that not participating in social media will affect your offline social status; we have seemed to lost our free will to participate in these social media. Especially in communication and media branches you’re sort of obligated to participate in order to keep up. If you’re not on SNSs you do not exist

In this post I will reflect the most important findings from my paper, which was directed at LinkedIn, onto Twitter to see how Twitter seems to affects our social status.

Our social status is not universal, it depends on the person we share our characteristics with. We are part of different domains. Within these domains we can have our own social status, like online gamers can have within a very closed community. We can also decide not to continue any more in any of these domains and make a fresh start in another domain (Wilkinson, 2006: p.8). We can see Twitter as a complete different domain, but like every domain it has some sort of influence on your overall social status. Like for example World of Warcraft players; the social status these players have inside World of Warcraft can be seen as something negative in a broader domain. Playing World of Warcraft online for a longer period of time, which in most cases is needed to get any real meaningful social status in these kind of games, can be seen from the perspective of a domain in which people do not play World of Warcraft, as like this person has no live, which gives a negative influence on your overall social status. Now the same goes for social media; what you do online can affect your social status offline. Making yourself popular on the web by bashing your boss will probably not make you very popular in the office. In most cases “[…] you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains (domains) around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even in slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination” as Henry Farrell points out (Farrell, 2006). We are aware of this connection between our offline and online social status. That is why most people do not bash their boss on the web because they know that there is always someone from another domain keeping an eye on things. In order to keep this post simple I will try to limit my focus here onto the domain of Twitter itself. What influences your social status on Twitter?

Our social status is complicated, it seems to derive from different factors; from visual characteristic, like the car you drive and the job you have, to non-visual characteristics; like the amount of money you make and which important people are part of your acquaintances. All these characteristics give us a position in the hierarchy of social status (Wilkinson, 2006: p.3 [PDF]). Because Twitter is in its essence so simple we can distinguish a few basic characteristic that might influence your social status. First there is the number of Tweets that you have, then in the same category there is the number of ReTweets and @Tweets. Secondly there are the number of Followers you have and who these followers are. Having important people as your followers can affect your social status. Third and last are there the people you follow yourself, who they are and their personal social status can affect your social status.

The way in which a social status from someone else is influencing your own social status is something really difficult to measure yourself and for other. I personally even think that it depends on who actually knows the person you are following or followed by. If you have never heard of Chris Anderson it is difficult to predict what that will have as an impact on your social status. The same goes for the content of your tweets. What that for impact has on your social status seems to depend those people who are reading your tweets. This is, I personally think, that most people therefore concentrate on their own statistics when on the actual content or the social status of others. In social network sites we have seen a hype of people just adding other people just to have friends. “At the beginning, I was just adding people just to get friends…” (Interview with Lolo in Boyd, 2008). In the hierarchy of social status this evolves into a status race (Wilkinson 2006: p.8). “[…] status competition involves group members evaluating themselves relative to their colleagues according to some shared value scale” (Bezroukov, 1999). Which in social network sites has translated itself into a friendship race; who has the most friends. “What happening on LinkedIn for a while, and some people still think so, is that when you have a lot of contacts you are more important” (Interview with Ayman in Heijboer, 2009).

Twitter Followers
Fig.1: Example; Andrew Keen’s followers status.

This friendship race in Twitter is problematic because there is a fundamental difference in how twitter works compared to traditional social network sites. In twitter you are unable to add followers yourself, while in social network sites you can invite other people to be your friend. Twitter also makes a distinction between people who are following you and people you are following yourself. This complicated the status race, because people now actually need to concentrate on their content. Interesting content will attract more followers. In this way the number of followers actually seems to say something about your tweets and your social status, people who are following you are actually thinking that you are interesting enough to follow, which will affect your twitter status, and eventually may well affect your offline social status. Having 10.000 followers on Twitter are real people interested in you and your tweets.

Even though it seems that the status race is problematic on Twitter, people do still try to create a status race. Not by adding followers, because this is impossible, but by adding people to follow, in the hope that these people will return the favor and start following them as well. ‘I scratched your back, you must now scratch mine’, which is in fact not that different compared to the way LinkedIn users are trying to get recommendations. They add a recommendation to someone else’s profile in the hope this person will return the favor by writing a recommendation for them. But this way of luring people onto your followers list seems very elaborate. You need to invest a lot of time adding people and you have no guaranty that they will return the favor. This makes your numbers of followers a more reliable characteristic for your social status then the number of friends you have on social network sites. The main question about this issue on social network sites was used to be; which number of friends is still reliable and from what point on it is not. On Twitter this seems to be the other way around; from which point on are you a serious Twitter user; in such a way that it will affect your social status positively?

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