How to buy followers and influence people

For $26, I gained 2,500 followers -- and you can, too! Adventures in being fake popular on Twitter

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Donohue's Twitter profile, with newly perky follower count thanks to a $26 investment in fake relevance

caitlin@sfbg.com

CAREERS AND ED I bought my friends. For 2,500 of them, I paid $26 — and you can do it too.

It bore reflection one day last month: Why does New York journalist-party disaster Cat Marnell have 20,000 more Twitter followers than me? Her quote about quitting her xoJane editorship to do angel dust was gold, but still.

In a world where relevancy is determined by your profile stats, I'm not alone in this, surely. No matter how much time some of us spend hashtagging, cross-linking, shouting-out, one never has as much social networking impact as one would like. Twitter baffles me sometime.

Thankfully, we live in a world where these perceived inadequacies can be dispersed with the click of a mouse.

Welcome to the business of paying for Internet followers. Spend five seconds on a quick Google search (try "buy Twitter followers," for example) and like Jezebel posts on insensitive media trends, they will appear: firms that contract with overseas programmers who spend their days creating fake online profiles, or bots, that can be summoned to announce their proclivities for anyone willing to brave this ethical gray space. Fake Internet celebrity, if that's not too redundant a term.

These fakeries are the cheapest thing you can buy in this world. My mouse hovered over the button on a site called Intertwitter: really 2,500 for $26? Hell yes — wisdom of handing over one's credit card information to a person who creates fake Internet profiles be damned.

It would take three to five business days, said the site, for my newfound flocks to assemble. Biding time until relevance, I reached out to several of the fake follower companies, hoping that they'd share a little with me about the business of fake friends. Somewhat to my surprise, most were polite and forthcoming about their mission.

The vice president of my benevolent friend-finder Intertwitter, Armani Prescott, assured me that the business of fake friends attracts all kinds of Internet entities, "from oil sheiks in Dubai to small mom-and-pop operations in West Virginia," he wrote me in an email. "Celebrities, politicians, professional athletes, start up companies, and just average, ordinary people" use his services. It has to do with search engine optimization, he said, but also just with creating confidence in whomever's browsing your profile.

And, real talk: "People use our services for all kinds of reasons including brand impact," Prescott told me. "But also just because they want to have more [followers] than their friends."

ROMNEY'S FOLLOWERS

Over the course of 24 hours on July 21 of last year, perpetually robot-faced presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked up almost 117,000 Twitter followers. The campaign's sole tweet from that day was a link to a contest whose winner would join Mittens for a day on the road to the White House — hardly a revolutionary breakout for a social media campaign whose last follower increase of that size had taken roughly a month to accrue.

Of course, the uptick was fake. Romney's campaign denied buying the fake followers, but if people really gauge worth by perceived Internet influence, the incident could be a sign of the darker side of buying Internet popularity. President Obama's rockstar Twitter account (which at 25.5 million adherents is one of the top most followed accounts on the site, as compared to the now-defunct Romney account's paltry 1.6 million) could have an even higher percentage of bot followers than his 2012 campaign opponent, some researchers have found.

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