Consumed by numbers

The "follow-back" economy of Nigerian Twitter represents a struggle for recognition in a vastly unequal and status-obsessed society.

Photo by Muhammad-taha Ibrahim on Unsplash

If you happen to find yourself on Nigerian Twitter or TwitterNG—a community of Twitter users based in Nigeria—there is a good chance you will have noticed the widespread deployment of phrases and abbreviations such as “I follow back” (IFB) and “kindly follow back” (or KFB). I am yet to learn of another group of Twitter users that requests followers as intensely and unrelentingly as Nigerians.

A few Nigerians prefix or suffix follow back phrases to their Twitter names, or adopt the phrases as their Twitter names, to ensure that their potent wish for new followers is among the first things other Twitter users will observe from their accounts. Most Nigerian Twitter users, however, circulate these phrases through isolated posts or by responding to (viral) tweets to increase the chances of a larger and more diverse group of Twitter users noticing their plea for more followers.

Some Nigerians target public figures. The managers of President Muhammadu Buhari’s account often arbitrarily deactivate and reactivate the reply feature on Buhari’s tweets. As to why, some speculate the inconsistencies reflect Buhari’s irrepressible trepidation over direct public engagement, while others blame the storm of follow back tweets.

None of this deter the follow back crowd. A Twitter user who, realizing that the reply function on Buhari’s Twitter account had been reinstated, noted that “the comment section [was] open” and proceeded to declare the famous words “I FOLLOW BACK”—deliberately in uppercase to perhaps reflect the joy of being back in the serious business of growing an audience. In an isolated tweet, another Twitter user wrote wishfully to Buhari, requesting a follow back from the president.

Why, you might ask, are Nigerians so determined to accumulate followers on Twitter? Or as one reflective Twitter user put it: “All [these] ‘I follow back’ people, what’s really the color of your problem?”

In Status Update, Alice Marwick writes of micro-celebrity as a kind of “internet-enabled visibility, a state of being famous to a niche group of people,” and adds that achieved (as opposed to ascribed) micro-celebrity is a “status-seeking practice.” For her, chasing visibility without the backing of achievements can be destructive to the overall pursuit of status. Yet this isn’t the case on Nigerian Twitter, where the need for internet-enabled visibility is a thirst easily quenched by an increase in followers. There is no expectation of merit; the only effort required is parading oneself on the streets of Twitter, piping that one is fit for followership (and generous enough to follow back.)

The count of followers is so crucial that one Twitter user appealed to other users to follow a new account after a previous account of almost 2,500 followers became defunct. The appearance of a large or growing number of followers is sufficient for crafting and sustaining an image of oneself as a micro-celebrity. It is easy to judge this obsession with numbers and disregard it as preposterous. But we should try understanding how (and why) a life becomes consumed by numbers.

On Nigerian Twitter, many users—especially those who may struggle in their offline lives to be recognised by others—understand that drawing a higher number of followers means attracting attention and prestige. It enables them to present their lives as successful. In a climate of socioeconomic insecurity, a growing number of Nigerians see social media platforms like Twitter as a space where they can take matters into their own hands, striving for visibility to build a confidence that may never transpire organically in their real lives. The struggle for recognition is ubiquitous in Nigeria, where the gap between the haves and have-nots widens each minute of each day.

The fortune of being in the former group (the haves) entails attracting attention and experiencing validation of one’s existence. The haves are more visible, more real, and less susceptible to abjection. This is reflective of the values nurtured in modern Nigerian society. Nigerian popular culture is filled with references to wealth and economic status as existential necessities, as destiny-shaping attributes. “Owo ni koko” (money is of utmost importance), says the singer Davido. Similarly, in a song titled Culture, the Nigerian duo Umu Obiligbo suggests that enduring a life marked by adversity is inevitable if one fails to possess wealth. “Imagine life without money,” one of the Obiligbo brothers sings, “you go suffer suffer tire.”

The conception of a life without money eludes the imagination of most people, not only in Nigeria but across the world, however the reality for many Nigerians is that money is not easy to come by. Yet on Twitter, followers represent a type of social currency. Followers embody a currency that does not necessarily materialize in offline settings but can be used to buy attention and respect in a virtual context. Despite its location in a virtual space, the growing of followers pervades reality, concretising digitally sourced attention and visibility as social securities.

The accumulation of followers, in a highly transactional manner, is also reflective of what Alice Marwick and danah boyd call “strategic self-commodification.” It involves a promotion of the self and continuous monitoring of how productive such promotion is. The self becomes both a product and a site of labor. Nigerian Twitter users striving for new followers demonstrate how individuals, of their own will, work towards managing their image, trying to maximize its positive traits and success, which in this context is the ability to accrue a significant number of followers.

Sherry Turkle writes in her book Life on the Screen, that the internet is a place where people “build a self by cycling through many selves.” On Twitter, there is an opportunity to open multiple accounts—granted that one has various email addresses with which to sign up—and produce different personas per account. More so, there is an opportunity to expand one’s following on as many accounts as possible, and if a Twitter account becomes permanently lost there is an opportunity to build again—both persona and followings—from scratch.

The imagery of exertion implicit in the quotation from Turkle captures the onerous nature of (re)constituting a self, of constantly being on the hunt for new followers, accumulating numbers imagined as signifiers of status and worth. Regardless of the effort involved, there remains a real commitment to this exercise because the experience of following and being followed, of being seen, informs how some Nigerian Twitter users understand their place in society. The counting of followers enables Nigerian Twitter users to form an identity that is generated through self-presentation. Erving Goffman writes in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that “the object of a performer is to sustain a particular definition of the situation, this representing, as it were, his claim as to what reality is.” Ceaselessly growing followers helps validate the presentation of oneself as a micro-celebrity, as worthy of recognition. The unyielding determination to accumulate followers can, therefore, be explained as an outcome of the need to sustain the assembled reality surrounding a projected identity.

Returning to the question presented earlier: “‘I follow back’ people, what’s really the colour of your problem?” Perhaps this is not a problem of a single color but a kaleidoscopic pattern. It represents a pattern of behavior that is characteristically human, a complicated reality that cannot be disentangled from incompleteness as a human condition. Reflecting on the relationship between incompleteness and technology, the sociologist Francis Nyamnjoh claims digital technologies are a form of juju (magic), which Nyamnjoh characterizes as a tool of “self-activation and self-extension.” He argues that people intending to negotiate the inevitable condition of incompleteness “seek to enhance their ordinary selves with extraordinary activators—juju.”

Digital technologies, Nyamnjoh says, have a ‘“propensity to facilitate narcissism, self-indulgence, and the keeping up of appearances.” Through digital activity, people have additional means of belaboring themselves to improve others’ perceptions of them. The counting and growing of followers on Nigerian Twitter is reflective of the workings of technology as a magical apparatus; it enables people, who might ordinarily lack the opportunity to successfully make status claims, to fulfill their ambitions and present themselves as accomplished.

Twitter is not without its problems and while it is impossible to absolve the social media company of its role in steering an alarming obsession with social media followings, the problem dancing before us cannot be contained by deploying righteous discourse about the dangers of technology. The follow back trend is among the tragedies of modern society. It represents the chaos of capitalism which has infected not only Nigerian society but the world at large, causing many to strive for distinction and hanker for upward mobility. But to what end?

Further Reading

To create or to perish

The last film of underappreciated Senegalese director, Khady Sylla dealt with mental health. It is worth revisiting it now for its groundbreaking portrayal of depression suffered by two women friends.