Kevin Ashton created an internet celebrity named Santiago Swallow for 68 dollars.
He blended three faces from portraits from Google images to create Swallow’s face using a free trial of Adobe Lightroom. He made a website. He bought Swallow 90 thousand Twitter followers online.
As part of his social experiment, Ashton used an online application called Status People. The website claims to tell you how many of your Twitter followers are real, inactive or what they call fakers, also known as Twitterbots.
I was suspicious. How can Status People actually differentiate between a bot and a real person?
For example, according to Status People only about 40 percent of Justin Bieber’s Twitter followers are real. So that would mean 33.6 million (give or take a point million) of his 56 million followers are fake or inactive.
Social status today is defined in part by social media. The difference of a few million or even a few thousand Twitter followers is huge. It determines your Twittersphere hierarchy, your social media power ranking, your on and offline reputation.
So I started thinking: who else? What about Lizzie O’Leary?
Turns out, according to Status People, Lizzie’s Twitter followers are 21 percent fake, 29 percent inactive and 50 percent real, active, contributing members.
And what about the official Marketplace Weekend account?
And of course, what about me?
I am far from a Twitter celebrity: At 188 followers (more or less depending on the day) and only about 300 tweets, I realize that by Twitter standards I’m not exactly a big deal. But come on, I had to know.
According to Status People only 1 percent of my followers are fakers and 23 percent are inactive. That’s pretty good—or at the very least better than Bieber. But mid-gloat I hit a snag.
When the site analyzed my followers, its metric determined that two of them were fakers. This whole time, I thought this app was weeding out robots, but both of my “fakers” are real people. Like, I-know-them-in-real-life, real people. One of them is my grandma.
So my suspicions were confirmed: Status People isn’t guaranteed to differentiate between bots and humans.
On Status People’s website, they list part of their methodology like this: “On a very basic level spam accounts tend to have few or no followers and few or no tweets. But in contrast they tend to follow a lot of other accounts.”
So it makes sense why Status People thought my grandma was a bot. She has zero tweets, zero followers and she is following one person—me.
The process of telling the difference is tricky, according to Dr. Steven Gianvecchio, co-author of the paper “Detecting Automation of Twitter Accounts: Are You a Human, Bot, or Cyborg?”
“I think that one of the problems you run into with Twitter is there are a lot of shades of grey,” he said.
Dr. Gianvecchio said sometimes accounts are partially automated, like if someone auto-tweets their blog. And most people don’t have a problem with that sort of automation.
Profiles like my grandma’s, however, would be considered unwanted, according to Gianvecchio.
“Those accounts, most people would consider to be unwanted because for the most part you really want to be interacting with other people,” Gianvecchio said.
So while Status People isn’t perfect at differentiating between bots and humans, it does weed out these unwanted followers who aren't interacting.
This is what I labeled the “grandma paradox.”
On one hand, my grandma serves no purpose on Twitter. She’s not a contributing member of social media, so there’s really no reason for her profile to exist. Sorry grandma, you might as well be a robot.
But on the other hand, my inner narcissist says, go ahead, grandma! In fact, tell all your grandma friends to make useless profiles and follow me too. The more the merrier, as long as my follower account is high.
And that’s probably how Justin Bieber feels too. It doesn’t matter that millions of his followers are robots, or might as well be, as long as some of his followers are real and interacting.
Gianvecchio emphasized quality over quantity. “I think that the number of followers that someone has is a meaningless metric at this point,” he said.