But there’s the fine line between a calculated strategy, and desperation. Soliciting for engagement up to the point of foolhardiness is counterproductive. Here’s another thing: the Internet can be unpredictable, too…
By Sybil Fekurumoh
The Nigerian Internet sub-culture is an interesting place. I daresay it has become a sub-culture unique to us alone. On Obasanjo’s Internet, as Nigerians like to call it, there’s something spectacular – almost unusual – about Nigerian social media users. Nigerian Internet spaces seem to take a life of their own, but at the same time, reflect the lifestyle of the users in these spaces.
It has been a week since Nigeria’s Presidential election. I watched, via Arise TV’s YouTube channel, as the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, addressed his supporters. But as the comment sections erupted into an excited frenzy in a show of support, I noticed something else. Some netizens use this shared preoccupation to solicit “likes.” One comment, with over 2,000 likes, read, “If Peter Obi’s words made you believe in a new Nigeria, like.” The word “like” is capitalised, as if for emphasis. Another which had over 3,000 likes read, “If Peter is your President-Elect, please like.” The sentence comes off as a plea. One read thus, “A leader is made not forced on people. If you will join us in the fight for a new Nigeria, hit the like button.” The user, perhaps unsure, tries to reassure themself that the shared unionism was real through requesting for likes. And on it goes in the comments section.
In the Internet sub-culture, amassing numbers is key to being considered important. Higher numbers mean more relevance to users. For many Nigerian Internet users, it has become a peculiar pattern to solicit engagement, almost to the point of desperation. The “like” and “follow” train may be expressed differently from one platform to the other, but it is similar in their exhibition. On YouTube, as we see above, it is to plea for likes in the comments. Similar to YouTube, on TikTok and Twitter, you may have come across live streams, video clips, and Twitter spaces, with the peculiar phrase, “Follow for follow.” But Twitter seems to be the main platform where the craze for engagement can best be observed. There are other variations such as, “I follow back,” “kindly follow back,” and their acronyms, IFB and KFB, users request for others to follow their accounts. They offer the promise of followership in return.
Usually, platforms for popular and influential people or organisations are easy targets for these soliciting. In the past, say two, or three years ago, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Twitter account was littered with these followers’ soliciting comments. It reached a point where the comments section was temporarily disabled. But netizens were never deterred, they only reinforced stronger. Some speculate that the President’s account is an isolated incident, a reflection of the people’s apathy towards the government. But it gets worse. Internet users are flexible. Where the “follow for follow” tactic doesn’t work, users employ trending catchwords. For example, searching for what’s trending on Nigerian Twitter involves wading through a sea of unrelated content. These posts, whether relevant to what is trending or not, attach the trending words to boost their visibility.
But interestingly, there’s no guarantee that these strategies are effective. So, one wonders, why waste time on something seemingly irrelevant? It is pretty simple, everyone wants to be liked. There is a perceived attractiveness that has become associated with accounts with large followership. One study found that users’ perceived likeability increases as their number of likes and followers increase. Higher numbers could suggest a person’s realness or relevance. For Nigerian Internet users, where social and economic inequality is strife, social media becomes a leveling playing field for everyone. This is particularly for persons who are not so famous, outside of the Internet. Having a high number of likes and followers translates to having prestige. The feeling of being perceived as likeable can be physiologically rewarding to users. Writer, Désọ́lá Ọlálẹ́yẹ, calls accruing followers a kind of social currency, where “followers embody a currency that does not necessarily materialise in offline settings but can be used to buy attention and respect in a virtual context.” It is no surprise that people are willing to buy likes and followers, anything to increase their Internet credibility.
Also, everyone wants a piece of the “popularity cake,” the kind of popularity that is validated by numbers. In this age of social media influencers, endorsements, and brand ambassadors, numbers are everything. As one writer put it, without engagement, social media is just media. These days, we find people “plug” in their businesses into their posts or in the comment section of others, all in the hopes of getting more sales. Artistes and creators attempting stardom would post their content under the post of other famous people with the expectation of a big break, or at the very least, to offer them their fifteen minutes of fame. It is about the kind of visibility that could translate to cash flow. Besides, with tirades, opinions, and takes springing up on social media every now and then, there’s no such thing as a bad PR. What matters is how well such public relations can be monetised. If the need to monetise did not exist, the work of social media strategists and content creators like myself will be redundant.
But there’s the fine line between a calculated strategy, and desperation. Soliciting for engagement up to the point of foolhardiness is counterproductive. Here’s another thing: the Internet can be unpredictable, too. Fame can come by a sheer stroke of luck. But, what if there was a better approach to getting engagement, rather than bombing the comment section with despairing pleas for followership? It is possible to find a niche audience within social media spaces where your voice can be relevant. Even at that, there’s no certainty that one will become a micro-celebrity, too. Keep in mind that social media platforms, like any business entity, exist to make a profit. And naturally, we are the consumers that make this profit. These platforms may encourage and even promote a self-obsessed promise of grandeur through engagements. But ultimately, it is more to their benefit than to the users. So the next time you are tempted to type that cheeky “I follow back” phrase, it’s best to reassess what you benefit from it. But if, as the Internet lingo goes, “it’s all vibes,” then by all means, indulge.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.