Earlier this week I logged onto my Twitter account and was welcomed by an unusually long list of Tweets reading “thanks for the follow!” and “hi!!! :)” The sudden attention seemed off to me: I hadn’t tweeted in days, nor followed anyone new in weeks, and I had no idea who these Tweeps were. Maybe it was just a wave of new admirers who felt compelled to seek me out on Twitter? Maybe I was finally on my way to getting that crisp blue badge on my profile—the coveted check mark from the powers that be anointing me as "verified," i.e. “cool and important.” No, that wasn’t it.
My account had been hacked! I was suddenly following everyone who previously was following me. I changed my password and figured that that was the end of my hacking experience.
But then these things happened:
1) I gained 50 new followers within two hours, most of them real people (i.e. not Twitter Bots).
2) I received four emails from people I didn't know, on my personal Gmail, saying “Thanks for the follow on Twitter! Do you want to have coffee sometime?”
3) Someone sent me a friend request on Facebook.
4) I got invited to a fancy dinner by a woman I’d never met.
I was flattered. All this attention just from a bot hacking my account! But it didn’t feel right; it wasn’t authentic. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t mean to follow them, and now they were responding to me across other platforms and flattering me because they had felt flattered by me following them. This, I realized, is a perfect example of the Great Circle Jerk of social media: “likes,” “follows,” “retweets”—all these little forms of social approval from our online peers make it all too easy to become obsessed with constant digital admiration.
In fact, the very structure of social media is designed to inflate our egos so that we keep logging back in. (You’re lying if you say the first thing you check when you log into Facebook isn’t the bright red notification icon.) For some, the feeling of a follow-back is like finally getting a long-awaited phone call. It’s that sense of feeling validated or important, that someone thinks you’re interesting enough to subscribe to your thoughts. It's like a drug. Or at least like making flirtatious eye contact with that cute stranger at a crowded party.
But, more than that, it's like middle school all over again. And we all remember what that was like. The petty relationships. The catty dramas. The insecurities. The unceasing desire for validation. Part of the joy of adulthood is that you no longer are supposed to care what strangers think of you. But who am I kidding? If there’s one thing this hacker showed me, it’s that we do still care. Or at least that social media makes us care.
But maybe getting hacked wasn't all bad; a lot of followers reached out in a positive, albeit strange, way. Hacker, if you're listening, maybe next time you can add that shiny blue badge to my page. Not that I care.