Climbing the Mount Everest of Twitter

Jul 24, 2011

A tech journalist friend of mine, Noah Kravitz, recently retweeted a message from a kid in Ireland, and I found it interesting. He said:

“@noahkravitz Hi Noah, Im trying an experiment to see if someone who isnt famous at all can get 1m followers. Can you help?” - @elsparkio

Something about this idea caught my attention. I think it was the post-structuralist nature of the endeavor. At its heart, post-modernism, and perhaps all nascent art forms, is all about finding the boundaries that you did not know existed, and then crossing them. If you look at a piece of art work and ask yourself “Is that art?” it’s probably post-modernist.

Had someone who isn’t famous actually hit 1,000,000 followers? Would that, by definition, make them famous? Is it possible? How could one go about achieving such an accomplishment? I think what attracted me most of all was the fact that this was the first such request I’d ever seen. Just a normal, average kid trying to gain followers not for self-promotion, or to increase his influence, but to see if it could be done. Of course, I haven’t actually asked him, so I’m only guessing at his motives. But if I’m going to retweet his message and therefore endorse and champion his cause, those are the motives I’d prefer to ascribe to him.

I followed him. I retweeted him. I forgot about him. That was yesterday. Today, I notice a lot of flotsam in my Twitter stream. The message that caught my eye was “There's a pile of college work that's taking a back seat to #twittereverest at the moment. Let's try that approach. #twittereverest”. From “Elsparkio,” aka Mark G. At first I ignored it. Then, I started to wonder, because I did not realize I was following any college students on Twitter. I have nothing against college students, but most of the people I follow are tech enthusiasts, journalists, and comedians, with the occasional Alyssa Milano thrown in for good measure. I may be following other college students, but they have the good manners to keep their homework troubles to themselves.

I’m going to offer Elsparkio some tips on building a Twitter following. I am completely unqualified to do so. In two years on Twitter, I have not broken 2,000 followers. I’m very happy with my follower list, they seem to be smart, engaging people. I don’t really care about building a huge audience, especially now that I don’t write as my full time day job. I used to care about my Twitter ratio, which is the number of people who follow me compared to the number of people I follow.

Now, though, I think that the ratio of my number of tweets compared to my number of followers is much more important. I am not impressed by someone who has 20,000 followers, if they follow 25,000 people. I am equally unimpressed by someone who has posted 20,000 tweets, and only has 100 followers to show for it.

I am unqualified to offer Mark G advice on gaining Twitter followers, because I am not a social media expert, which in layman's terms translates to “con artist.” I don’t give such advice professionally, but I do know what I like and what I don’t like, and before I decide to unfollow my new friend, I figure I would offer some humble criticism.

No mysterious tweets

Here is the tweet that inspired me to write this column: “This would be interesting...”. Wow, do I hate this sort of tweet. I hate cryptic tweets. I hate tweets that only the tweeter can understand. Either the person is trying to be mysterious, or they are simply tweeting whatever pops into their head. If they are trying to be mysterious, I don’t need to follow them. I don’t need mystery in my life right now. Either tell me what’s going on, or keep your mouth (fingers?) shut.

I know this is probably just a method for reaching out. Humans are social creatures. We like interacting with each other. Sometimes, we just want people to acknowledge we are alive. Other times, we want people to ask us what’s on our mind, because that feels so much more engaging and accepting than forcing your silly anecdotes and thoughts onto people. It’s okay. Force away. It’s Twitter, if I don’t care about what you say, I’ll simply pay attention to the other few hundred people I follow. I won’t chastise you.

Make every cover letter unique

In Elsparkio’s case, the aforementioned tweet was probably a preview of the next tweet to come. He writes:

“@declanganley Hi Declan, im on a quest to see if a non famous person can reach 1m followers. Can you help spread the word? #twittereverest”

Oh, dear lord, now his mission has its own hashtag. Why? So that all of his followers can click on the link to easily find everyone talking about the “twittereverest?” So that he can become a trending topic, with his 100 followers? Hash tags are dead. Done. Nobody likes them. They aren’t useful. They are never funny. They are only annoying. They are like forced laughter, or a guy who does a rim shot sound after every joke.

But the hash tag is not the worst part about his tweet. You see, Declan Ganley is a politician. He has 4,000+ followers. Since my new friend Elsparkio seems to be based in Ireland, I can understand the appeal of this. But then, a few tweets later, I read:

“@NathanFillion Hi Nathan, im on a quest to see if a non famous person can reach 1m followers. Can you help spread the word? #twittereverest”

Nathan Fillion is an actor. He was in the fantastic sci-fi series “Firefly,” and he now stars in the show “Castle.” He has more than 900,000 followers. Why did Elsparkio send him the exact same tweet he sent to Declan Ganley?

I gave this advice to my high school students when I taught resume writing: Write a unique cover letter for every application. A prospective employer will see right through a form letter, and will also appreciate the time and effort it took to think of a more personal greeting. The same is absolutely true for Elsparkio’s #twittereverest mission.

In an hour on Twitter, our subject tweeted the exact same greeting message to Ryan Sheckler (skateboarder), Brody Jenner (reality TV star), Eva Longoria (actress), Asamoah Gyan (futbol player), Justin Bieber (hair model), Yamaha Motorcross, Kristen Chenoweth (wicked broadway star), Holly Madison (self-described smart blonde), Mike Tyson (biter), and a bunch of other celebrities. The exact same greeting.

It’s almost funny when he veers from his pattern. He calls everybody by their first name, except Kevin Spacey, whom he calls “Mr Spacey.” Rob Kearney, a rugby player, gets a “Hey Rob.” So, he’s clearly not just cutting and pasting. There is thought going into this. And that thought leads him to the decision: ‘should I change this greeting at all for Mike Tyson? Nah.”

Spelling counts

“Im” bugs me. Use an apostrophe. Thats what theyre there for.

Don’t tweet about the number of followers you have

Yes, I know this is probably missing the point, but the crux of my advice to Mr. Sparkio is that he needs to be interesting. He cannot simply be an anonymous Twitter poster. A bot could gather 1,000,000 followers by following all of the sycophants on Twitter who automatically refollow you. The goal of reaching a million followers as a civilian is only interesting if you can also make a statement about the nature of interest in celebrities on social networks. There is certainly something to be said there.

You don’t need to tell me how many followers you have. I can count. I don’t want my Twitter feed interrupted. When you hit a major milestone, I will forgive the intrusion. But if I have to interrupt my stream of tech journalists complaining about the heat and retweeted videos of an old man taking a pie in the face to read: “6 new transatlantic followers overnight,” I’m going to want to get off of this boat. Tell me when you hit 1,000, then 10,000, then 100,000. But make it interesting. Tell me how long it took. Tell me what you’ve learned along the way about gaining followers. Tell me if the goal still seems attainable, and if so, how long will it take? Is it all worth it?

I’ve been going back and forth a bit with Elsparkio on Twitter. He says “Its not about me. Its about the idea. I could be anyone.” First of all, APOSTROPHES! They don’t hurt, I swear.

Second, that’s just silly. Anyone could be anyone. i didn’t follow anyone. I followed a kid with a unique and interesting ambition who is trying to reach an unattainable goal. If he becomes anyone, I unfollow, because I don’t follow just “anyone,” and neither do a million other people. But if he can put in the effort, be a little creative, and actually pull this off, he might become someone worth following.

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