The Internet and the era of social media networks have changed the definition of fame and stardom in today’s context.
Pop-stars like Justin Bieber and Marie Digby are discovered on YouTube, brought to the attention of music executives by their huge online followings.
Being a blogger has also become a full-time, legitimate occupation.
Cosmetics giants like Lancome reach out to online make-up gurus like Michelle Phan, and in Singapore, blogging queen Xiaxue blogs professionally for a living, receiving hefty sponsorships for a range of products including food, contact lenses , hair care and make-up, house furnishings and even a sponsored wedding lunch.
What makes them stand out ? The hordes of people who add them on social networking site Facebook, and the hundreds of thousands who follow them religiously on Twitter. Online shout-outs, retweets, YouTube fan videos have become the new barometer of success on the social media stardom scale.
But do you know that this social media “fame” can be bought? And rather cheaply, I might add.
Many of these “fans” and “followers” are not real people but simply fake, inactive accounts created by computer spamming software.
Sold mostly via websites touting themselves as “Social Media Agencies”, they “bot” accounts by the thousands each time someone pays for them, promising fame-hungry wanna-bes instant online stardom in a new phenomena dubbed #Fakefollowers.com.
A quick “I want to buy fake followers” search by Yahoo! Singapore revealed hundreds of websites selling these fake followers.
With a quick (virtual) swipe of a credit card, one can buy 20,000 Twitter followers for the princely sum of US$17, or why not go all the way and buy yourself 100,000 fans for just US$50? Fanmenow will give you 1,000 Twitter fans for US$10, while Intertwitter is hawking 100,000 Twitter fans for just under US$500.
These sites even promise to “discreetly increase the amount over a period of one month” in order to avoid raising suspicions.
There are two kinds of Twitter followers “for sale” – Targeted followers, and Generated followers. Targeted followers are “bought” by a software which seeks out Twitter users with similar interests to the person paying for them and follows them with the hope that they will return the favour.
Generated followers are “bot” accounts created by spamming computers and usually have generic names, but no tweets and no profile pictures, making them much easier to spot.
They typically have few or no followers, barely any activity, but follow many.
Similarly, Facebook friends are also available for sale by the hundreds and created by even more sophisticated “zombie botnets”, which can gift these accounts with fake interests, fake supermodel photos, and even more fake friends in an effort to make them look more authentic.
Armed with an arsenal of fake Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and hundreds of computer generated “likes” on photos, just about any web-savvy person can become an instant online celebrity for the purpose of scoring endorsement deals and fat advertising fees from unsuspecting clients looking to publicize their products.
Roaring trade in Singapore?
Here in Singapore, the concept of buying social media stardom is relatively new but steadily growing.
A check with five such “Social Media Agencies” selling fake followers showed that from making up just 5 per cent of their total clientele in 2010, Singaporeans now form 30 per cent of their customer pie – or about 5 million followers have been distributed to Singapore-based twitter accounts in the past two years.
A Yahoo! Singapore street poll of 90 Singaporean youths aged between 16 to 25 also showed that 9 out of 10 of them suspected that local bloggers and “personalities” buy Twitter and Facebook followers and fans to pad their resumes. Five out of 10 interviewed even admitted having friends who did it to boost their own popularity.
“If people see that you have lots of followers, they usually assume you’re popular and will follow you to see what the hype is about,” said SMU undergraduate Penelope Low, 24, an avid social media user who is plugged into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram 24/7.
“Clients looking for social media personalities to endorse their stuff don’t usually check to see if your followers are fake – so eventually if you are interesting enough, you’ll have a pool of genuine followers. It’s like creating your own credibility – and no one will know it wasn’t real.”
“Once you are kind of famous as a blogger in Singapore, event invitations and sponsorships will just come pouring in, said NTU arts undergraduate Lee Xinying, 23.
“A lot of companies are anxious to increase their presence and brand online after being rejected by bigger names like Xiaxue, Dawn Yang, and the rest – many younger girls would do it just for the fifteen minutes of fame,” she added.
Online star wanna-bes
Besides “purchasing” followers, these online star wanna-bes also do “follow-backs”, which help them get living and breathing followers, albeit not genuine ones. The reasoning is simple – follow me on Twitter and Instagram and like my photos, and I’ll do the same for you.
Teen blogger Danica Ng, 17 (not her real name), told Yahoo! Singapore she was able to amass 17,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, despite not actually being famous.
“I started out by adding as many people as I could on Twitter and Instagram, and then messaging them asking them to follow me back because I thought they were cool. It’s pretty interesting how many people do follow back – flattery works,” said Danica, who is taking her ‘N’ levels this year.
In one-and-a-half years, she had 17,000 followers from around the world regularly commenting on her photos and re-tweeting her posts. She has accepted endorsements of blog shop clothing, cosmetics, contact lenses, and even body-slimming sessions.
Fame or infamy?
She estimates the average Singaporean full-time blogger today can make at least $1,500 to $3,000 a month, including endorsements and advertisement fees.
“It’s the kind of life and fame I would never have had without the Internet,” said Danica, who also admitted to later buying about 600 followers to make her numbers more impressive to clients.
After polling the 90 youths, Yahoo! Singapore was given ten names of local bloggers who are widely believed to have bought their followers and Facebook fans.
When contacted, most declined comment or did not reply.
Singaporean deejay and online celebrity Nicole Chen, however, replied to Yahoo! to deny the allegations. Chen currently has over 140,000 followers on Twitter and 26,000 likes on her Facebook fan page.
“I didn’t buy followers. I don’t know why they said that. It just so happens that my friend has 300,000 Twitter followers and he helped me promote my Twitter from about 20,000 followers to where I am,” said Nicole in an e-mailed response, “So I was just lucky.”
Later, however, her manager contacted Yahoo! Singapore to say that while Chen may have fake followers, it was because she had contacted a PR agency to handle her affairs and that she would not know if they had purchased fake followers on her behalf. He went on to claim that Yahoo! Singapore may also have had followers who were computer-generated.
“Nicole did not buy followers. She hired a company to help her do online marketing,” he said.
(A day after Nicole’s manager spoke to us, Yahoo! Singapore News’ Twitter page experienced a 100 per cent spike of 20,000 followers to 40,000 followers. A quick check of these new followers found that they were face-less, tweet-less followers typical of computer generated fake accounts.)
Blogger community – some outraged, others accepting
Several prominent local bloggers told Yahoo! Singapore they were aware it was possible to buy followers and fans. They said it was becoming an increasingly widespread practice, especially among teens who wanted instant fame.
"It is definitely becoming more and more widespread as it is getting easier and cheaper to buy followers now," said blogger Wendy Cheng, better known as Xiaxue.
"It has become pretty common and I'm really disgusted by it. I certainly hope it won't become a "trend" but I think it's likely to increase as online personalities seek an easy way to gain recognition. I feel it's unethical, but most of all it's extremely embarrassing," said Cheng, who has over 120,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 Facebook likes.
She added that she would not patronise businesses which bought followers to boost their online profile as she felt that they were not to be trusted.
“Most bloggers would be ashamed to buy... once its noticed or you’re caught, it’s very embarrassing and you will lose credibility,” said popular local blogger Yutaki James, who has over 26,000 Twitter followers.
He added his vocal stance against fake followers has also led to others getting back at him by buying him about 20,000 followers, up from 6,300. He now has plans to turn his account private and slowly delete and weed out "bot" followers.
Popular blogger Lee Kin Mun, aka mbrown, said the practice of buying followers was "pathetic and quite tragic" and may be triggered because these people are "lonely and need to buy fans."
"I think you can't stop people who want to buy fake followers," said Lee, who has nearly 70,000 followers on Twitter.
"Eventually if you have nothing to offer, the followers who were conned into following you will unfollow you. And all you're left with are the fake ones like Mindy124 and SexyEmma54," he added.
Another local female blogger, 26, who declined to be named, said that the “fake fame formula” still works in Singapore because most social media users are younger, impressionable teens who think that numbers equals popularity.
“At the same time, I don’t know if it’s fair to condemn these wannabes. Some people try to get blog readers by doing giveaways to attract comments while others put sexy photos. Is buying followers really that bad?” she said.
“In the real world, people who have connections and money also do better in life. I don’t think it’s very different from buying followers,” said student Alicia Goh, 16.
“Anyway, in the end, if you are not interesting enough, no one will read your blogs or follow your tweets even if you have a million followers, so you won’t become really famous.”
Part 2 of “The price of social media stardom”: Meet the “internet ninjas” behind the phenomenon of “hyping”.
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