The unearned follow

I wanted to keep this one to a separate post from the Quora issues, because it’s an issue worth discussing on its own.

I’ve been getting too many follows on too many services without earning them.

On PicPlz I have 2,034 followers.
On Quora I have 17,713 followers.
On Instagram I have 9,249 followers.

Did I earn these by having the best participation? The best photos? The best answers? No. Although I put in some good time, with 409 questions answered on Quora and hundreds of photos posted to the other systems, I can’t say I earned every follow.

I’m not the only one benefitting from unearned follows.

First, how do you get an unearned follow?

Well, let’s say you are following me on Twitter. Then we both join a service like PicPlz.

Did you know that PicPlz will automatically follow me for you? Even if you hate my photographs?

Did I really earn your follow on these new services like I did on the older services like Twitter or Facebook? Yeah, you could say that I didn’t earn them there, either, since I had hundreds of thousands of readers on my blog before I started tweeting, but on Twitter you needed to manually “follow” me and other people on the system. On the newer systems they automatically follow people based on their Twitter popularity.

I don’t think so but I don’t know what to do about it.

This presents a distorted picture of who is putting the most effort into the system. For instance, of the top five most followed on Quora, other than me, here’s how many questions they’ve answered:

Evan Williams has 17,373 followers and has answered five questions.
Kevin Rose has 16,486 followers and has answered 11 questions.
Tim O’Reilly has 13,122 followers and hasn’t answered a single question yet!
Jason Calacanis has 11,528 followers and has answered 29 questions.
Michael Arrington has 11,499 followers and has answered 15 questions.

As comparison, I went through the Quora reviewers (these are people who’ve answered a question well enough to have gotten “reviewer” status, which gives them powers that I don’t have, like the ability to mark questions as not helpful, and the power to not approve your question, which means no one will see it).

Most of these people have “earned” fewer than 100 followers.

Do you see the problems this causes?

Jealousy, for one (because no one can really get as many followers as those who already have them). Non-transparency for two (because the follower counts don’t mean anything on the newer services).

Why do companies do this?

Because it gets popular users onto the system, which drags their social networks onto a new social network.

What does that cause? Virality.

How many of us are talking about Instagram and PicPlz, but not Path? Why not?

Path resists this system and forces people to manually add their friends in their new system.

This retards virality but causes something else to go way up: loyalty and lack of churn. It also ensures that the social graph that is built on Path is one that’s earned on the new system, not dragged over from an older system where it might not make sense.

Path has other problems that keep me from using it (it’s not cross platform, for instance, and it is too limiting on number of friends, at 50) but this experience has me wondering if forcing all users to “earn” their follows might not be a better way?

What do you think?

UPDATE: I added a question on Quora to get feedback about this post.