Are you following me?

Wednesday, February 4th 2015

If you regularly read a number of blogs, the chances are that, rather than visit them from time to time on the off-chance that they have been updated, you use some automatic system such as an RSS reader or “aggregator” to keep in touch with them. Another way to do it is to subscribe to the blog if the particular blog’s platform allows this. Subscribing to a blog usually entails entering your email address and results in you receiving an email alert each time the blog is updated.

This process is properly known as “subscribing” and those who subscribe as “subscribers”. However, under the influence of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which provide the means for members to “follow” other members, blog subscribers are also increasingly referred to as “followers”. Does this change of nomenclature matter? To be honest, I don’t know but it is something I shall discuss below.

To avoid even the least shadow of a misunderstanding, let me declare here that I like having subscribers. Genuine subscribers are valued by a blogger as they show that there are people who like what he produces and this encourages him to continue and to do his best. They are second in importance only to those lovely people who visit the blog often and leave interesting and encouraging comments though, of course, subscribers may also be writers of comments. You may notice that I slipped in the word “genuine” in the second sentence of this paragraph and this too is something I shall return to below.

When I first started blogging in 2006, there was much more of a community feel to the activity than there is now. I soon became a member of a group and we visited one another’s blogs regularly (without RSS) and we appended comments to one another’s posts. In those early days I accumulated perhaps half a dozen subscribers and the number remained at that for several years, though a new one might appear every now and again.

I suspect that some of those subscribers’ email addresses are no longer current and that although their owners ceased reading my blog years ago, WordPress goes on emailing my posts to them like a robotic postman delivering mail to an abandoned house. This introduces an important point, namely that WordPress provides no mechanism by which a blogger may disconnect subscribers. Once a subscriber subscribes, you are stuck with him or her. This doesn’t usually matter but in recent years there have been complaints of undesirable subscriptions being made – by porn sites, for example – which, despite the embarrassment or annoyance that they cause, cannot be undone by the blogger.

For a long time, as I mentioned above, my small number of subscriptions remained more or less fixed. Then, more recently, I began to notice an increase in the number of subscriptions and the rate at which they were appearing. This puzzled me because, while a few of these subscriptions looked genuine, a lot seemed rather unlikely. They might belong to SEO sites, to commercial blogs or to blogs specializing in, say, fashion, or other topics I never deal with. These subscribers never left comments or contacted me.

I looked online (the modern equivalent of “asking around”!) and found that other bloggers were experiencing the same thing. The rate of subscriptions had increased everywhere and the bloggers experiencing them seemed as puzzled as I was as to the reasons.

This is where I return to the word “genuine”. It may be difficult to define what a “genuine subscriber” is as opposed to one that isn’t genuine but I suspect that you, like me, have some sense of what is meant by the description. Subscribers who show some continuing interest in the blog, for example, are obviously “genuine”. What about the others?

My searches online and my thinking about this matter have so so far formed no firm answer. I suspect, though, that the word “followers” comes into it somehow. “Subscribing” seems like an act with serious intent behind it while “following” doesn’t. People “follow” one another on Facebook, for example, more or less as a matter of course. You automatically “follow” your friends and anyone else who has some claim on you because not to do so would be seem like a deliberate rejection.

This goes along with that other mis-named activity, “befriending”. I rarely visit my Facebook account which must seem dead to the outside world but, even so, I get “friendship requiests”, almost always from people I have never heard of, who have never shown the least interest in me and have never contacted me. Why, then, do they want to be my “friend”? At one point I started messaging them to ask. I would receive either no answer or a vacuous one such as “Sorry, I mistook you for someone else”. Yeah, right.

When I was on Blog Catalog (theoretically, I still am, because despite many requests remove my blog, it is still there), I received a friendship request from a woman who had 3,000 friends. Yes, three thousand. I was not about to become friend 3,001 and turned her down. How can you possibly maintain 3,000 relationships deserving of the name “friend”? You can’t: it’s a scam.

The above two paragraphs may seem like a diversion from the topic but I think there is a connection. I think there are people who actively seek to acquire large numbers of “friends” and “followers”. Why do they do this? That, as Hamlet said, is the question.

I am ready to believe that there are some people who think that having a large number of Facebook “friends” or Twitter “followers” enhances their reputation and makes them look good. I don’t know whether it does or not but they think so. The way to get friends and followers is of course to befriend and to follow others in the hope of being reciprocated.

Is this, then, also the reason for the increased activity in blog subscriptions? Do these subscribers subscribe in the hope that I, and other bloggers, will subscribe to their blogs in return? If we did so, then the increase in the size of their own followers’ list would make them feel good and perhaps impress others of their ilk.

There is another side to this and that is that at least some of the suspected non-genuine subscribers run commercial or quasi-commercial sites. Businesses are increasingly creating a presence on Facebook and Twitter and it might seem to them that creating a presence also in the blogosphere is a positive move, especially as it costs nothing. So, are these subscribers hoping that subscribing to many blogs contributes to creating an online presence? Even if each subscription produces only a small effect itself, perhaps subscribing to hundreds or even thousands of blogs produces a bigger one. As the proverb says, “many a mickle makes a muckle“.

Is this the answer or am I clutching at straws? Does anyone know? If so, please tell this Hamlet because the question is weighing on my mind.

Update February 6th 2015: See my follow-up, More on followers.

Copyright © 2015 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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16 Responses to Are you following me?

  1. It seems to pay to take “subscribers/followers” even “Likes” with a grain of salt. (and like you it would be nice to be able to cut loose the ones that aren’t really readers, but businesses.)
    Every so often there are waves of new subscribers made up of different groups. There are new bloggers who are eager to build a following and are sure will click over and build their stats. WP actually encourages bloggers during some of their workshop/classes to explore new blogs and make new friends – sometimes offering hints about how to construct comments. (Remember visits and clicks around blogs add to WP’s overall stats which they can show to potential ad companies and such). It’s sad when I get a new arrival who cheerfully says “Hey, I’ll follow you and you can follow me and it’ll be great.” Unclear on the concept.
    It seems there have been a lot more companies/businesses subscribing – they are building a web presence – and the more activity/visits they get to their blog, the higher they will appear in Google and search engines….and you might buy their product and they can link to your readers’ blogs/emails. Lots of data to gather up and use.
    It’s annoying. It would be nice to be able to have some control, but that’s probably not going to happen. Meanwhile, all I can say for sure is the people who make actual relevant comments and return multiple times are probably my real followers. (and I do my best to comment on blogs to reassure bloggers I do actually read their posts when I can)
    Does any of this help? Stats and “subscribers” are one reason not to take blogging too seriously? Gotta keep it fun.
    Great post – many are pondering this, too

    • SilverTiger says:

      You are right – I had let WordPress’s commercial interests slip from my mind. They certainly adopt a carefully cheerful and optimistic view of subscribers by sending us celebratory messages whenever numbers pass certain points.

      “Like” is another contentious subject which I have already dealt with in Why do you like me?.

      These are, I suppose, relatively minor issues given that Worpress is a fine blogging platform and we can use it for free.

  2. cbramhall says:

    It’s a constant source of amusement to a work colleague that I have my Facebook account so locked down that nobody can send me a friend request. Her amusement stems from my seemingly anti-social behaviour on a social networking site but from my point of view, I’m choosy about who I admit as a friend, just as I would be in person. As you say, there is no way anyone can actively be “friends” in any sense with 3000 people: serious research has been done on that topic and a number of around 150 keeps cropping up in all cultures, offline as well as on. (Try “Dunbar’s Number” in your search engine of choice for more information).

    As for blog followers, my own is set so that it is not listed on search engines, and I cannot say that I’ve experienced any increase in numbers.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I am “on” Facebook in order to reserve my name in case I ever discover a reason why being on Facebook is a good idea. So far, no good reason has offered itself for my consideration.

      Once upon a time, people either wrote for the commercial market or they wrote privately. In the digital age, we have every possible shade in between those two extremes. Blogs can be private or public or hang somewhere in between.

  3. appinventor2 says:

    I usually comment as my alter ego BFG (https://baldfatgit.wordpress.com) but today I’m working on some Android bits so I’m somewhat in disguise – sorry.

    I’ve found similar contacts appearing out of the blue (usually on Twitter, where unless I actually know the individual personally I ignore all suggestions that I follow someone – too great a risk of being the victim of a watering hole type exploit). I don’t think anyone reads BFG anyway (and I haven’t been disposed to write for many a month/year, due to circumstances that are too boring to discuss) since I don’t use tags that I haven’t personally created🙂

    Any such attempted contact that comes with a shortened URL is usually given short shrift, the more so if the URL turns out to be a nested shortening using more than one such service.

    My Facebook alter-alter ego (alter id?) is as locked down as I can make it and used extremely rarely these days since I get warnings about being vulnerable every time I go near the site (I’m forced to run XPSP3 on elderly hardware that can’t support later MS-OS’ so I have as many belts, braces, bits of string, cycleclips, kneepads, suspenders, garters and dabs of adhesive strategically placed in an attempt to keep my parts as private as possible), so no-one gets to try to beFriend me unless I reach out to them, but every time I go into LinkedIn there’s usually someone I don’t know (with 500+ people in their network) who wants to join mine if I’ll join theirs, which rather taints the whole idea of LinkedIn as a *personal* networking tool.

    By and large I steer clear of all hawkers of eGoods no matter how non-dubious they try to appear, and I maintain an enormous hosts file to try and keep my browser(s) from consorting with unapproved sites. I’m heading towards preventing Internet Explorer from ever running at all, since it’s so full of holes it resembles Swiss cheese.

    Every time I update a version of my resume sitting on some jobsearch site I get inundated with invitations from persistent pedlars trying to upsell (or is it downsell?) the idea that I would be an absolutely spiffing candidate to join their quite obvious minimum wage sweatshop, and the volume of garbage in my pre-screened SPAM folder swells briefly.

    It’s like being in one of those apocalyptic zombie movies where every time some poor unfortunate farts loudly they attract hordes of knuckledraggers with bad skin and a tendency to sound like Michael Palin’s Professor St John Gumby as he ably demonstrates flower arranging with a wooden mallet.

    Where was I? Oh, yes. I’m afraid I have no useful answer to your question. But I’ll keep trying. My wife always says I’m very trying…

    • SilverTiger says:

      Paranoia is the correct attitude on the Internet and Web.

      I think the online world is full of people trying to get an edge and not caring whether doing so is immoral, illegal or fattening.

      There is also a lot of advice floating around, much of it useless or downright dangerous and, for all I know, my “followers” could be taking advice from somewhere that their lives and their businesses will be improved by following my blog (and other people’s, of course!). They won’t, of course, but for every one that is disillusioned, ten more will come along to try.

      The old adage that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” remains good advice.

  4. jennsie says:

    I have been using bloglovin’ as this allows me to see all recent posts of all blogs i follow in one place or to go to one blog and quickly get an overview of all the past posts, a bit like pinterest but for blog entries. and yes i do follow you.
    My blog is http://www.jenikya.com/blog if you wish to follow me too.
    Jenn

    • SilverTiger says:

      Bloglovin is one I haven’t tried. When I tried an experimental sign-up it kept asking for a valid email despite the fact that I had given it one so I gave up on it. I currently use NewsFox, a Firefox add-on.

      Thanks for following me, er, I mean, for subscribing…🙂

  5. WOL says:

    I have strenuously resisted Facebook. I do not like their unabashed data mining and their practice of selling my data to others without my consent. Also the cyberbullying of the young on Facebook turns my stomach, and I suspect it has become tarred by that brush as well. I have gotten a new follower recently, although I wasn’t able to determine if it was a “real” follower or not.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Facebook isn’t for everyone and neither is Twitter, though both can be made to serve useful purposes.

      The faults of Facebook that you mention are important but a lot of people overlook them in order to continue using the service. Several Facebook alternatives have been essayed but none has achieved the same level of popularity.

      With Facebook, as with other online services, the data they mine is the data you give them. If you don’t give them data, then they can’t mine it. This lesson still needs to be learned, particularly by the young who may unwittingly jeopardize their future life and career through injudicious exposure of information about themselves.

      It is virtually impossible to determine whether followers are genuinely interested in your blog or merely wish to plant a flag, as it were. Some become active commentators but others remain forever in the background.

  6. cabbieblog says:

    I’ve noticed also, of late, a sharp increase in my subscribers, and there’s me thinking that my erudite posts about London are being read. I suppose an algorithm has been written which trawls the web and inserts the appropriate email address. Could it be just a WordPress vulnerability that is being exploited?
    Another scam I’ve received is of a fictional company wanting to use my domain name with a Chinese extension i.e. Silvertiger.com.cu.
    ’Jim’ then writes to say to prevent this happening I can buy all the Chinese domains. I know London cabs are now manufactured in China but naming your company ’cab’. I thought the universal word was Taxi.

    • SilverTiger says:

      A “follow bot” is high on my list of suspects but I have not so far found evidence of one, though there do exist RSS feed search engines. Also people can find follows from social media and trade addresses with one another. A WordPress vulnerability, like the one that allows “referrer spam”, is also possible though, again, I haven’t found evidence of it.

      The domain name scam is an interesting development. I haven’t seen that one before. There are companies that send you expiry notices in the hope that you will accidentally renew with them instead of your regular host.

  7. Mark Elliott says:

    Hi, just to confirm that I’m still here and following when I can. Thanks for all of your interesting posts.

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