A tough act to Follow

Wed 04 Jul 2012

Happy birthday Twitter. Six years old this month, the social network and microblogging service has seen everything from riots and revolution to fake deaths and joke bomb threats pass through it’s servers. It’s power to put the world at people’s fingertips means it has become – in deputy prime minister John Prescott’s estimation at least – more relevant than the traditional, mainstream media.

Twitter has even created its own celebrities and the words to describe them: step forward Twitterlebrity and twuperstar. Not the best portmanteau words in the short history of massively distributed, socially networked intelligence, it has to be said. But for now we’re stuck with them.

Follow, a real time filmmaking experiment directed by Tim Brunsden [@mrjonesy ] and one of AND festival’s online projects for 2012, is about the elusive promise of Twitter stardom. The film stars performer and confessed showoff Scottee [@ScotteeScottee, pictured], charting his quest to gain more Twitter followers than Russell Grant (over 40,000 followers to Scottee’s 3072, a fact that Scottee, who looks just as good in a sequinned jacket, finds a little unfair).

We’ll hear about the process from director Tim at a screening/question and answer session during AND Festival at the end of the summer. But for today I’ll suffice as a guide to some of the research that has gone into the project. As tech support, I’ve written a handful of computer programs that have quietly been gathering information from Twitter about some of its most successful characters.

One character in particular has caught our attention. Her name is @SoDamnTrue.

Describing herself as “not perfect… only human. Tweeting the things that are so damn true in 140 characters or less,” SoDamnTrue is a model of success often seen on social networks, the ‘overnight sensation’. She did not bring a readymade celebrity (in Russell’s case, 30 years on stage and on television) with her to the social network.

Yet, in the period from April alone, we’ve watched her followers pass the one million mark. It’s a figure Russell can only dream of in his wildest astrological projections.

Her reach is astonishing, as the process of capturing and databasing all SoDamnTrue’s tweets (and replies to those tweets) has revealed. A tweet from SoDamnTrue produces, on average, about 900 others, a cascade of retweets, quotes and comments (‘LOL’, ‘Amen’, ‘So damn true’) that bounce around the Twittersphere.

Put another way: a few weeks of tweets from the woman herself (SoDamnTruisms about milk and cookies, jealous girlfriends and tampons) has spawned roughly 1.3m identical or near-identical children. It provides her with constant, invaluable, self-renewing exposure. Just as the National Grid is known to plan for a surge during the ad break in an episode of Coronation Street (think three million households all switching on the kettle and the bathroom light at the same time), a tweet from SoDamnTrue must set computerised alarm bells ringing in data centres the world over.

So what is the secret of her success? Like a gravitational singularity, she is so large now that people are almost powerless to stop themselves being drawn in. But wasn’t she once mortal? And how did she scale such heights?

One thing that might help answer those questions is our discovery that SoDamnTrue isn’t without help.

Firstly, other popular Twitter accounts (@QuotingJokes – “Rude, funny, HILARIOUS tweets” – followers 965,000) repeatedly point their followers in the direction of @SoDamnTrue. It’s what in an art organisation might be called a ‘media partnership’.

Second, celebrity accounts offer promises of follows should one retweet or follow @SoDamnTrue. Some accounts are genuine (Niall from One Direction for example), others appear to be fake versions of well known people that spring up and disappear just as quickly – perhaps suspended or deleted by Twitter for spamming other users.

Together with the fact that @SoDamnTrue chucks out the occasional product endorsement for the latest fad diet, these ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ marketing techniques suggest SoDamnTrue wasn’t kidding when she said ‘I’m not perfect’.

Of course, we should be careful to remember that these might not be the things that created her success, coming instead with the gold rush that followed. But it has led us to wonder if she is as ‘human’ as she claims. Behind the pretty avatar that leads some to tweet “can you marry me? #obsessedwithyou”, perhaps is there just some tech nerd turned PR entrepreneur, tweaking the diodes of an army of bots and cracking the whip over a team of hack status writers (jaded 40-somethings, experience includes episodes of Friends).

Twitter idol or false god, Follow may never find out the truth about SoDamnTrue. But we are learning some of the darker arts of social media along the way. Is there a means for Scottee to cheat his way to the top? And whose back will he have to scratch, or stick a knife in, in his quest for success?

Follow episode one is available online at www.followscottee.com. Episode 2 is currently in the works and will be available at the end of July.

Episode 2 is out now: www.followscottee.com/2012/07/20/follow-episode-two/

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