The Inflation of Followers

The rise of the “creator economy” has allowed individuals to make a living by creating and sharing content online. At the crux of this profession is the concept of “1,000 true fans,” first coined by Kevin Kelly in 2008, which states that by cultivating a base of 1,000 dedicated fans willing to purchase products or services, creators can sustain a successful middle-class career. This concept is the foundation for an entire class of internet entrepreneurs and a swirling ecosystem of vendors like Patreon and Substack.

To reach 1,000 true fans, creators must first acquire 10,000 mediocre fans, 50,000 lookyloos, and 100,000 passerbys. These “top of the funnel” fans inevitably attract advertisers and sponsors, leading many content creators to prioritize gaining a large audience on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok, instead of focusing on building relationships with 1,000 true fans who pay with their personal money for a product or service.

Just as consumers have experienced monetary inflation, content creators who chased large numbers of followers have started to learn about the negative effects of “follower inflation.” Not all followers are equal, especially if they were artificially created or never meaningfully engaged with the content. Follower inflation can provide short-term benefits and increased confidence, but if the relationship with a follower isn’t built on a platform that allows for meaningful connections to be formed, creators will ultimately be left with an empty bag.

Where The Inflation Comes From

You’re popular with bots!!!!!!

One way followers are inflated is through bots. One of Elon Musks’ presumptive goals is to rid Twitter of bots, which researchers have estimated to be between 9–15% of all accounts. The “Dead Internet” theory, that bots comprise much of the content/follower activity we see, is overblown, but not entirely without merit. Maybe those TikTok numbers are real, or maybe they’re inflated by a platform which knows it can keep content creators on a treadmill chasing virality and producing free content if their egos get a number boost. This form of follower inflation is particularly egregious as it comes from the platforms themselves. And while it sounds conspiratorial, only a few years ago the biggest episode of follower inflation of this kind came from Facebook which notoriously over-counted video views for over a year. You could say the “pivot to video” was built on a big lie.

Nobody actually stays

Another way followers are inflated is through the never-ending scroll feature on most major platforms. Even if your post is favored by the algorithm and does get to a segment of your audience, they will quickly be distracted by the next post in their feed. This gap between “views” and actual “engagement” leads a content creator to think their follower bark is bigger than its bite.

Social media platforms are like sharks. They need to keep moving and growing to stay alive. The feed is designed to keep the user scrolling and associating the overall experience with the larger brand, Facebook/Twitter/TikTok and not neccesarily the individual content creator.

The nature of platforms is to incentivize this kind of follower inflation, but just as economists will tell you a bubble needs to pop for the financial ecosystem to be healthy, so too do the follower numbers in our media environment.

Followers are more Fickle

Audiences in 2023 are more likely to consume content and less likely to become loyal fans if their main interaction with your brand is through a larger platform. There’s a gluttony of creators vying for attention and it can be difficult to stand out and attract followers to your specific “SubscriberStareOnfaneon” page.

Today, being a “true fan” may no longer mean a lifetime commitment. Instead, individuals may purchase merchandise and then move on with the tide. In 2023 it’s easier for audiences to flit from creator to creator, making it harder for professionals to retain a steady fanbase. Churn is now an occupational hazard for creators. This is a new challenge that wasn’t present in 2008 when the concept of “1,000 true fans” was first introduced. Back then, the technological barriers to becoming a fan were much higher, making the signal to noise ratio better. Any fan that found you was immediately a more dedicated and committed supporter. Now, with the ease of subscribing and unsubscribing, retention and churn have become major concerns for creators.

Squeezing the Middle Class

As the legendary rapper Biggie Smalls once said, “more money, more problems.” The professionalization of the creator economy has led to increased expenses and competition, rather than less. One of the key aspects of the “1,000 True Fan Theory” was that internet creators could keep their expenses low. However, as creators have become a professional class, with expenses such as management, platform fees, travel costs and more, they are facing increasing financial pressures.

Follower Inflation is real, but that doesn’t mean the party is over

The 1,000 True Fan theory isn’t obsolete, it’s just been taken to the next level.

Gaining a following has become more challenging as it requires more investment and takes longer to achieve because it is harder to convert followers acquired through typical platforms. However, there are still opportunities for success. For example, smaller and more niche communities tend to convert faster. This means that not all followers are equal. Having one follower on TikTok might be worth 1/100th as much as having a follower who subscribes to your RSS feed, podcast, email, or text group.

In today’s landscape, a successful creator must focus on building a bridge between the large number of followers at the top of the social media funnel and the smaller group of dedicated fans who will remain loyal through any circumstance. The skill of strategically placing and nurturing these bridges will differentiate those who are blindly casting a net and only acquiring cheap inflated followers and those who are deliberately working towards acquiring 1,000 true fans.

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