Today’s guest post is written by Andy Crestodina. 

Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others to reflect correct behavior for a given situation…The effects of social influence can be seen in the tendency of large groups to conform to choices which may be either correct or mistaken; a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior (source: Wikipedia).

We’re all affected by the actions of people around us, especially when we have little information to go on.

This is called “social proof” and Twitter is a great example of this kind of psychology at work.

When you see an account with a large following, it looks like a big third-party endorsement. There is not much other information but a tiny image and the 140-character tweets. So we quickly assume the person must be influential.

But are they? Not always…

Auto Follow, Follow Back, Auto Follow, Auto Unfollow…yawn

TweetAdder is a tool that can grow a following quickly. It finds people who meet certain criteria, then follows them by the hundreds or even thousands per day. Typically around 40 percent of these accounts follow back and thus, the following grows quickly.

Some people run these auto-follow tools at such high levels, following so many people so quickly, they actually exceed the maximum number of allowed calls to Twitter per hour, “maxing out the API.” And if hundreds of those accounts don’t follow back?  No worries. TweetAdder will automatically unfollow those in a few days or weeks. This keeps the following/follower ratio looking good and the “social proof” high.

This technique is often used to push followings to ridiculous heights, even to tens of thousands of “followers.” At this point, the numbers lose their meaning and social proof breaks down.

Loved! …by robots

These accounts are easy to spot. They have huge followings, close follower/following ratios, and either tens of thousands of tweets or sometimes very few. The followers are often phony or irrelevant accounts, some in foreign languages, some without bios or profile pictures. Just pick one of these social media “superstars” and scroll through their list of followers.  Do you see accounts like this?

Or this guy?

Or someone like this?

How could your neighborhood social media expert possibly have a connection with this Japanese student? They don’t. It’s just a robot talking to another robot. Nothing could be less interesting or less social.  It’s almost anti-social media. I get bored and sleepy just thinking about it.

If you’ve been on Twitter for long, you may have asked yourself: Why is this British accountant following me? Who is this German DJ and how did they find me?  They didn’t. It’s likely an automated tool like TweetAdder. Congratulations. A robot is now following you and can’t wait for your next tweet!

Social Proof or Social Spoof?

Before you develop an opinion, look at the followers. Lots of completely irrelevant crap? See if they are really talking to people.  No real conversation? Then don’t be too impressed. Social proof and large followings often really don’t mean as much as you’d think. Other indicators of influence are also easy to fake, such as a high Klout score or high “listed” numbers on Twitter.

On the other hand, if you’re a social media professional, it’s your job to help build up your clients’ networks. I believe that TweetAdder is a perfectly legitimate way to jump start things at the beginning and get the client up to a basic level of credibility quickly. Yes, this approach is artificial, but it’s a legitimate time saver. There is a fine line between automation and spamming.

What matters is real connections to real people who are really interested.

Klaatu Barada Nikto

This was the phrase from the end of the classic 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think it translates to “Klaatu calls of the robots” because when Gort, the killer robot, heard the phrase, he stopped destroying the planet. It would be nice to hear “Twitter barada nikto” but sadly, there is no sign of these auto-following twitterbots slowing down.

Andy Crestodina is the co-founder and CEO of Orbit Media Studios, a Chicago web design company.