What can social media teach us about followership?
In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in interest regarding followership. Partly, this is because our attitude towards being a follower has changed.
When I interviewed people in the early 2000s, many portrayed followers in a negative manner. Words like ‘sheep,’ ‘puppets,’ and ‘yes-sayers’ were used to convey an image of followers as passive, uncritical minions.
Today, many associate followers with individuals engaged on social media platforms. In these settings, followers decide who, when, and how they want to follow. In other words, the power to follow is in the hands of the followers.
Now, imagine what would happen if people were ordered to follow influencers on social media.
First, everyone would realize that the follower count wouldn’t truly represent a genuine interest in the influencer.
Second, because people wouldn’t be following based on interest, their engagement would drop. Just picture a 30-year-old gun-loving biker having his feed overflowing with posts on knitting and crochet. How often do you think he’d log in to his account? In fact, I suspect the overall interest in social media as a whole would plummet.
Third, to get followers to log in and engage in posts, influencers would have to find ways to ‘motivate’ their followers. This would be next to impossible. How would a knitting expert get a gun-loving biker to start engaging in posts? You can only knit so many gun holsters until you’re out of ideas. Besides, the biker is just one follower. The others all have their own interests.
My guess is that this dilemma would give rise to a new industry. Soon, experts would emerge like mushrooms, each promising the moon. Because influencers need their followers, I suspect they’d be willing to enlist these experts.
I’m sure you see where I’m headed with this.
The reason why the term ‘follower’ is acceptable on social media is its connection to individual freedom.
Following on social media is a choice, not an obligation—at least, not yet. We’re free to stop following whenever we please, and because our livelihood isn’t influenced by who, when, and how we follow, we can exercise that right whenever we wish.
This behavior resembles what I view as genuine followership in other contexts. Our willingness to follow is driven by our intrinsic interests, which is why I don’t use the word ‘follower’ to describe people in subordinate positions. Things would look very different if we had to follow influencers for a living.